MALAM JABBA: The morning test run provided the organisers a taste of what was to come.
There were thrills and spills as skiers and snowboarders came speeding down the Malam Jabba slope. Thankfully, though, there were no serious injuries.
The thinning ice on the slope also didn’t help, forcing a tweak in the format of the inaugural edition of the Red Bull Homerun in Pakistan on Saturday. Instead of a mass sprint to the finish line, the participants were divided into groups of five each with the winners of each of the individual races competing in the afternoon final.
No one really cared though. Most participants were thankful at getting a chance to take part in an event that is held globally. Some of them travelled to Malam Jabba from the remote Madaklasht valley in Chitral and from Naltar in Gilgit-Baltistan.
“For our kids, this is a big opportunity,” snowboarder Adeeb Hussain, who led the team from Madaklasht, told Dawn. “It’s an international standard event and the exposure they got here is something new for them.”
Key to arranging for the team from Madaklasht to come to the Homerun is Pakistan-Austrian skier Suhaib Ahmed. Over the last few years, the 31-year-old Suhaib has turned his attention towards mentoring and providing opportunities for potential future winter athletes in Pakistan.
Madaklasht is a newly-discovered winter sports venue of the country. Skiing, though, has been part of the community there for almost a century. Inspired by the members of the Royal British Army, who discovered the area as a potential skiing venue back in 1930s, locals have been crafting wooden skis of their own.
Theirs is a story similar to Mohammad Abbas, who started off practicing on wooden skis to become the first skier from Pakistan to qualify for the Winter Olympics — a feat he achieved in the 2010 Games in Vancouver.
“It’s moved from one generation to another,” says Adeeb. “I learnt the art of skiing through my father who learnt it from his father and so forth, so you can say it’s an ancient art.”
It’s only been a couple of years, however, since the skiing enthusiasts of Madaklasht got their hands on modern ski equipment. Snowboards arrived at the valley only last year. All thanks to a group of Frenchmen who donated the equipment after skiing there.
On Saturday, the skiers and snowboarders from Madaklasht were competing with international athletes including two-time free ride world champion Nadine Wallner of Austria.
“I saw a lot of talented skiers out there,” Wallner told Dawn at the end of the competition.
Wallner isn’t competing full-time these days, rather she’s focused herself on “more expeditions and ski trips” and is now going to test herself on slopes of Hunza in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Suhaib explains that for free-riders, doing it is a ‘way of expression and freedom’. “Competition and recognition is secondary, really.”
That’s not the case for snowboarder Wakeel Ahmed though. The 25-year-old Wakeel hails from Naltar valley, which has produced each and every Winter Olympian from Pakistan, from Abbas to Mohammad Karim and Syed Human. Competition is everything there.
“My ambition is to represent Pakistan at the Winter Olympics in 2026 … that’s my target,” Wakeel, who took up snowboarding two years ago and quickly rose to become one of the country’s top athletes in the discipline, told Dawn.
Wakeel led the team from Naltar that swept the awards at the Homerun with Ali Hasnain winning the snowboard competition and Sajid Alam taking the skiing honours.
Like Adeeb, Wakeel believes that the Homerun was a ‘big opportunity’ for athletes from his region. “It’s events like these where they get a chance to rub shoulders with and learn from international athletes,” he said. “We need events like these on a regular basis.”
But it is still a long road for athletes like Wakeel if they’re to qualify for the Olympics.
“We need international standard training and exposure if we’re to do that,” Samar Khan, the pioneering female snowboarder and endurance cyclist from Pakistan, told Dawn.
Samar, who hails from Dir, also took up snowboarding two years ago. And while she hailed Red Bull for bringing the Homerun to Pakistan, she said more corporates needed to step up and promote winter sports.
“The talent is there … you see these kids from Madaklasht who are naturally-born skiers and snowboarders but they need promotion and sponsorships,” she said. “You just can’t take up the sport professionally.”
Developing ski resorts is also one of the contributing factors. Madaklasht doesn’t have a chairlift yet with aspiring athletes having to trek up the slope and then come down. That’s something they have to do over and over again to train.
Chairlifts aren’t a problem at the Naltar, which was developed by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) as the country’s first ski resort in 1958.
“The challenge is to get good training,” adds Wakeel. “I’ve been in talks with the Winter Sports Federation of Pakistan (WSFP) about getting training here and abroad so we can take snowboarding further in Pakistan and give our children a chance to aspire for more than just qualifying for the Winter Olympics.
“Developing facilities will help us host qualifying and other events. Then there are events like Homerun, where it’s not just about competing but getting to learn new things. I hope next year we can have the Homerun in Naltar where it will be a big boost for aspiring athletes there.”
Published in Dawn, February 14th, 2021