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Ethiopian cross-country skier takes on the world

Until now the Winter Olympics has been dominated by athletes from Nordic countries where there is plenty of snow. But all that is changing. At this year’s Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, Africans are hoping to prove that they too have what it takes to go for “winter gold.”

Among those hoping to do well is 35-year-old cross country skier Robel Teklemariam from Ethiopia. He was the first athlete to represent his country in any event at the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy four years ago. Although he didn’t win any medals he helped to raise the profile of those competing from African countries.

Robel’s love of skiing began when, as a nine-year-old, he moved to New York state when his mother took up a job with the United Nations. Robel was sent off to boarding school in Lake Placid, the location for the 1980 Winter Olympics. It was there that the boy from dusty Addis Ababa fell in love with the “white stuff.” The rest is history. Robel looks back on that time with happy memories.

“Skiing was really one of the main sports but I also got into snowboarding. But the first racing I did was cross country ski racing.”

Robel moved back to Addis Ababa four years ago and it’s from there that he has been doing much of his training. He has been a key figure in establishing the Ethiopian Skiing Federation and says that although there isn’t any snow, at nearly 3000 metres, Addis Ababa is a good place to build endurance at altitude. Robel can be seen skiing through the city on skis with wheels.

“They’re basically like cross country skis but they are quite a bit shorter and you have wheels on either end. You can use those to roller ski and it simulates the sport of cross country skiing.”

Robel is modest when asked about his chances for winning an Olympic medal. He recognises that the competition in Vancouver will be tough but says if he can improve on his previous performance, he will be happy.

“Even if it’s one in a million, everyone has a chance and you have to see every race that way. You have to have the mentality of thinking you will win when you race because that’s what pushes you harder and harder to give your best.”

The Olympic cross country skier says he is honoured to represent his country and he knows that over the next few days, Ethiopians and Africans everywhere will be crossing their fingers and wishing him well.