Cross-country skier Robel Teklemariam will be competing at the Vancouver Games on Feb 2010
Feb. 02 2010
Ethiopia's distance runners are world renowned, but given the East African country's climate and negligible snowfall, its winter sport athletes are scarce, to say the least.
One man is doing everything in his power to change that.
Cross-country skier Robel Teklemariam is Ethiopia's only winter Olympian. He will be competing at the Vancouver Games in the men's 15-kilometre race on Feb. 15, aiming to improve upon his 84th-place finish at the Torino Olympics four years ago.
The 35-year-old has a much bigger objective: to set the stage for other Ethiopians to follow in his tracks.
"After Turin, I met a lot of Ethiopian skiers, but so far, none of them are racers," says Teklemariam. "They just go out and enjoy skiing or snowboarding.
"There are over one million Ethiopians living overseas, all over Scandinavia, all over Canada and the United States. I am pretty sure there will be some young kid who will want to race eventually, and that really is my goal at the end of the day."
Teklemariam left Ethiopia with his parents and five siblings in 1983 when he was just nine years old. At the time, his mother worked for the United Nations and asked for a transfer to UN headquarters in New York in order to give her children the opportunity for a Western education.
Learning to ski
The young Teklemariam spoke no English, but when he enjoyed a summer camp experience in Lake Placid, N.Y., his mother enrolled him in boarding school there. It was there that he learned to ski.
"I went to a race, and one of the guys asked my coach where I was from," Teklemariam recalled. "I had no idea who he was, but he said as a joke, 'You should represent Ethiopia one day at the Olympics.' I heard him, but I never took it seriously, but it was always there in my mind."
While at school, he saw a television documentary on legendary Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila, who won the 26.2-mile event at the 1960 Olympics running in bare feet. Teklemariam, who has always spoken Amharic and retains an Ethiopian passport, said he felt an enormous attachment to his homeland. Inspired, he focused on his own Olympic dream.