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This Is What It's Like To Be Your Country's First Potential Winter Olympic Athletes

Repping your country in a sport it doesn't recognize is difficult.

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Erin Trieb for BuzzFeed News

Sajjad Husaini heads back to the car after a trial race was canceled due to bad weather. “It’s disappointing when a race gets canceled,” he says, “the more races we participate in, the bigger are our chances of reaching the right amount of points for the Olympics.”

The drone of a Korean documentary crew is buzzing above Alishah and Sajjad's heads as they go out for a run in the pristine, snow-covered woods of Switzerland. An Austrian news anchor has positioned herself between two ski slopes, microphone in hand, ready to catch the two athletes between practice runs. And in the lobby of the St. Moritz Youth Hostel, a Japanese journalist is nervously conducting an interview via Google Translate, since he neither speaks English nor Dari, Alishah’s and Sajjad’s native tongue.

Alishah Farhang, 27, and Sajjad Husaini, 25, are two aspiring skiers from Afghanistan who are currently training in St. Moritz, Switzerland. They attract constant attention from media outlets worldwide, as they are trying to achieve what no Afghan has achieved in the history of winter sports: to participate in the Winter Olympics, taking place this February in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang.

It is a dream they didn’t even know they had a few years ago. “Coming from a small village in Afghanistan, going to the Winter Olympics was nothing I ever dared dreaming about. How could I? I didn’t know such things existed, so how would I have imagined them?” Farhang says.

Erin Trieb for BuzzFeed News

Alishah Farhang warming up at the Santa Caterina Valfurva Ski Resort in the Lombardy region of Italy. Nervousness is radiating from the young man. “It’s difficult for your mind when you always start last in the races,” he says.

Though their home province of Bamyan is spiked with mountains, they had never heard of skiing — until a group of European aficionados decided to put Afghanistan’s mountains to use for something other than shepherds and insurgents. Upon first seeing the Europeans on the slopes in 2011, Farhang was perplexed, “I didn’t know what to call the things they had on their feet.” Neither did Husaini. “It was very joyful,” he remembers his first experience skiing, “falling down, rolling around in the powdery snow.”

What started as fun became ambition when both Husaini and Farhang won the Afghan Ski Challenge that had been set up by the Europeans in their home province. As both men turned out to be exceptionally talented, they were given the chance by the Bamyan Ski Club to train in St. Moritz during the winter. This is their third consecutive year in Switzerland, and BuzzFeed has been following them for some of their last trial races, which will show whether Farhang and Husaini will be good enough enough to qualify for the Olympics.

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Husaini waxes his skis before the race at Santa Caterina. “It is true that there is still war in Afghanistan, and that some people are terrorists,” he says, “but I am here to show another side of my country.”

Athletically, they have been having a hard time, usually coming in last at the trial races. “When I feel disappointed, I tell myself: How could we possibly compete against athletes who have been skiing their entire lives? I have been on skis for a total of nine months,” Farhang says. Seeing the training opportunities given to talented athletes in Europe can be frustrating for the young men, at times. There are no lifts, prepared slopes, or gondolas in Afghanistan. In order to ski, people have to walk up a hill and then ski down — often with wooden skis that people in Europe and North America haven’t used since the 1970s. Farhang says, “You sometimes walk up for two hours just to ski down for five minutes. It’s hard work.”

Despite having cameras following their every move, zooming in on their faces when they read yet another disappointing score on the board, the young men have decided to tolerate the constant media attention for one simple reason: They want to offer the world a different view of Afghanistan. “A lot of people are surprised when they first meet us,” Husaini says, “they say, ‘You are Afghans? But I thought all Afghans were terrorists or refugees.’”

By mid-January, it is becoming obvious that the two men will not collect the points necessary to make it to the Olympics. However, they continue racing until the very end, having adopted the spirit of true athletes who don’t give up even when the odds are against them. Their last chance to participate in the games, however, is now a letter from the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who asked the Olympic Committee to make an exception for Farhang and Husaini. After all, the Olympic idea is not one of winning, but one of taking part. The men are still hopeful. Farhang sums it up: “Making it to the Olympics would show people that Afghanistan is not just conflict. And I am sure it would inspire lots of young people in Afghanistan, as well as encourage the government to help more athletes. There is room in history for someone like us.”

Erin Trieb for BuzzFeed News

Farhang racing down a slalom route during training near St. Moritz. “If he always skied like this in the actual trial races, he would have no problem qualifying for the Olympics,” coach Andreas says. Like a lot of young athletes, the men often get nervous when the points count.


Erin Trieb for BuzzFeed News

Left, Swiss coach Andreas is instructing Sajjad in a restaurant near St. Moritz. Andreas has been with the athletes for three years, and says he has witnessed an enormous development. “Coming to Switzerland was a wake-up call for them. They thought they were great skiers from Afghanistan but quickly saw that by European standards they were mere average. It was a reality check - but they’ve learnt to train really hard since.”Right, Sajjad, Alishah and fellow athlete Nikita are taking a break between races in Santa Catarina, Italy.

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Erin Trieb for BuzzFeed News

Husaini sitting next to Carlotta Marcora, another young athlete from Italy going to the trial races at Santa Caterina. More than becoming a famous skier, Husaini wants to help Afghanistan. “If I can be a positive example for my country, I can also change my country,” he says.

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Husaini being interviewed by a Korean documentary film crew. The constant media attention can be tiring for the athletes. “But we also know that we need the media if we want to show a different side of Afghanistan,” Husaini says.

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St. Moritz at dawn. The small town in southern Switzerland is incredibly expensive and home to many ski resorts. Upon first coming here, the two Afghan athletes were shocked. “I could not imagine a country where you always have electricity,” says Husaini.

Erin Trieb for BuzzFeed News

The Bamyan Ski Club is a bar in St. Moritz that helps fund Farhang’s and Husaini’s training. It stands out among fancy cocktail bars in five-star hotels and restaurants serving truffled pizza. On weekends, it gets crowded with the young, alternative scene of St. Moritz.

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Farhang is talking to the mother-in-law of the owner of the Bamyan Ski Club bar. They are talking about Farhang’s wife, who lives in Afghanistan and is soon expecting their first child. “I hope it is a girl,” Farhang says, “I’d really like to raise a girl the same way people raise boys in Afghanistan — to show that there is no difference between men and women.”

Erin Trieb for BuzzFeed News

Husaini is anxiously checking the scoreboard after a trial race at Santa Caterina. “The course was longer than we are used to, and it’s more difficult for us than for other athletes because we don’t have the same kind of intensive training as they do.” Still, he does not want to give up hope. “If we could make it happen, actually go to the Olympics, I would be so proud of Alishah and myself,” he says.

Erin Trieb for BuzzFeed News

Farhang and Husaini are watching television in their hostel in St. Moritz — ski racing is on. If everything goes according to their plans and hopes, they, too, will soon be seen on television racing down the slopes in South Korea.

Erin Trieb for BuzzFeed News

Husaini’s rucksack is sitting in the lobby of the St. Moritz Youth Hostel, waiting to be picked up for a trial race. “I never had the same opportunities that European athletes have,” he says, “but I can still give it my best.”





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Contact erintrieb at erin@erintrieb.com.

Writer/Filmmaker in the Middle East and Central Asia

Contact theresabreuer at breuer@weltreporter.net.

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