From sand to snow: Saudi Arabia's quest for its first Winter Olympics

Saudi Arabia has stepped up preparations for Beijing 2022 as the desert kingdom attempts to qualify athletes for the Olympic Winter Games for the first time.

By Will Imbo
Picture by 2012 Getty Images

Saudi Arabia (or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as it's officially known) is a vast nation that occupies most of the Arabian Peninsula, whose landscape consists of boundless stretches of desert and rugged mountain ranges. The daily mean temperature of the land (throughout the entire year) is 26°C (79°F), and in January 2021, snow was spotted on the dunes of the Sahara desert for the first time in 50 years.

Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia is not a hotbed for winter sports, and has never participated at an Olympic Winter Games.

But thanks to the efforts of a small team of skiers and snowboarders, the Saudi flag could soon fly at the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games on 4 February.

Saudi Arabia opening ceremony
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Saudi Arabia at Beijing 2022: An Olympic first?

It may surprise you to learn that if one or more Saudi athletes do qualify for Beijing 2022, they won't be the first competitors representing a Middle Eastern nation to compete at the Winter Olympics.

Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq and Jordan - all nations that share borders with Saudi Arabia - have previously sent athletes to the Games, while there is a host of other less 'traditional' winter sports nations (including Egypt, Israel, Senegal and the Cayman Islands) that have all been present at past competitions.

Fittingly, some of the Saudi athletes now trying to make history for their country compare themselves to the Jamaican men's bobsled team that gave the Caribbean nation their first-ever Winter Olympians at the 1988 Calgary Games.

“It’s the same concept,” snowboarder Faisal al-Rasheed told the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). “It’s inspiring how they did it and nobody thought it’s possible.”

There are indeed some similarities between the Jamaican's path to the Olympics and al-Rasheed and his teammates' journey.

Just as the Jamaica Olympic Association (JOA) recruited coaches from the U.S. and Austria to help teach the team how to bobsled, so too has the brand new Saudi Winter Sports Federation (SWSF) brought in European coaches for the same purpose; not to mention organising a summer training camp in the Swiss Alps. Such moves are in keeping with the lofty goals of the SWSF, which launched a search for skiers and snowboarders to represent the Kingdom earlier this year.

"We are seeking stars who have athletic ability, are talented, fast, powerful and have a desire to push their boundaries to represent their country," Ahmed Shaher Al-Tabbaa, the newly elected President of the SWSF, told Arab News.

"That's exactly what we need in the hope of having representatives at the Winter Olympics in 2022."

Preparing for the Olympics

As of writing, eight athletes - all male - have been selected for "rigorous training programmes in the run-up to the Olympics," and while they all have some winter sports experience, few have competed in the discipline they're looking to qualify in.

In fact, most of the team took up skiing and snowboarding relatively late in life (in comparison to other aspiring Olympians around the world), and many had already embarked on professional careers outside of sports.

Snowboarder Yousif Kurdi, a former McKinsey consultant, used to take unpaid leave from his job in order to hit the slopes in Chamonix, France. After a former colleague shared the above tweet from Reema Bandar Al-Saud in May, he quickly applied (the eight athletes were chosen based on video footage they sent in during the open call on social media). A few weeks later, he got word that he had been selected for the team.

“We’re going to train, and if we get 1% improvement every day, we’re good,” he said. “This idea our competitors have been training all their lives, who cares? It’s out of our control.”

Hope for the future

The goal of having Saudi athletes compete at the Winter Olympics for the first time is being touted as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to explore new industries and improve the health of his compatriots, who are among the world’s most physically inactive people, according to the Global Wellness Institute.

But even with royal backing, Al-Tabbaa extended an invitation to the private businesses to help provide snow and ice in order to help the athletes train as well as getting thousands of young Saudis involved in winter sports - and his plea was heard.

According to the WSJ, a private developer plans to start building the region's largest indoor ski slope at a Riyadh shopping mall in 2021, while a new city state, planned to be built in the north-west of the country, also anticipates hosting a ski resort.

Naturally, a Saudi athlete qualifying for Beijing 2022 would do wonders for snow sports in the Kingdom, but meeting the qualification criteria set by the International Ski Federation is no easy task, especially with the Games just around the corner.

For example, the team's snowboarders (all of whom are competing in the boardercross discipline of the sport), have to finish among the top 32 racers in the world in a number of races in order to earn a spot at Beijing 2022.

Canadian coach Jeff Books, who was hired by the SWSF to develop the Olympic training program from scratch, told the WSJ that qualifying a Saudi athlete is "achievable, but some moons are going to have to align for this to work.”

For now, the mere fact that the SWSF is trying to make history at the Winter Olympics appears to be enough to give fans hope for the future of snow sports in Saudi Arabia.