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Saudi Winter Sports Federation

Here's a recent article from the Saudi Gazette:

LAUSANNE — Saudi Arabia has stepped up preparations for Beijing 2022 as the Kingdom attempts to qualify athletes for the Olympic Winter Games for the first time. Saudi Arabia 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 Feb. 4.
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.
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. These Jamaican ladies carried the Cool Runnings legacy in PyeongChang. “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 US 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 organizing 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, had said.  "That's exactly what we need in the hope of having representatives at the Winter Olympics in 2022."
With the result, eight athletes — all male — have been selected for "rigorous training programs 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.”
The goal of having Saudi athletes compete at the Winter Olympics for the first time is being touted as part of Crown Prince Muhammad 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.

Al-Tabbaa, meanwhile, 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. —

 It's not the most accurate piece of journalism, for example the Sahara Desert is nowhere near Arabia - it's in north Africa, and the Jamaican bobsledders were men, not women. 

So where does curling fit into this? Well, last October the Kingdom Curling Association was invited to attend the inaugural meeting of the SWSF. We went along and met ice hockey people from Jeddah, a figure skater and a couple of skiing enthusiasts. Chairing the meeting was Ahmed Tabbaa, mentioned in the above article. He was very pleased to hear of the progress that we had made in curling, becoming full members of the world federation, this was unique amongst the winter sports in KSA. We were asked to explain our route to achieving this and we gave advice to the other sports on gaining recognition.

So, in the last year we have been working closely with the SWSF, and they have promised funding for curling in KSA. We will be hiring a professional curling coach to a position in Jeddah at the Al Shallal theme park on the Corniche. In association with that we are ordering another starter kit of stones, brushes and ice equipment so that he can hit the ground running.

Next, the SWSF moved to become the national member association for all winter sports, and the KCA liaised with the World Curling Federation to transfer country membership to the SWSF. We had to secure a letter from the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee to confirm that, and it was completed earlier this month. As the SWSF does not have any curling expertise or experience, they have asked the KCA leadership to support them, and we are happy to do so.

However, at grass-roots level curling is still self-sustaining with members covering the cost of weekly curling at the Royal Mall in Riyadh. Possibly we will get some support there in the future, as the high fees we have to charge make participation a restrictive sport.

We were able to secure some WCF development funding to support taking 8 curlers to participate in a week-long training camp in Zbraslav, Prague in September. There we hired in our chosen coach for Jeddah to run the course, and he was excellent in the role. From that we had planned to send our mixed doubles team on to the Olympics pre-qualification event at Erzerum, Turkey, in October. Sadly the Covid restrictions will prevent our team from travelling (Turkey is on KSA’s “red list” and despite entreaties to the Ministry of the Interior, we could not get permission to go there). Regrettably we had to withdraw and advised the WCF late in the day.

More positively, we have a men’s team entered for the 2021 Pacific-Asia Curling Championships which will be held in Kazakhstan in November. In this the team will be supported by the SWSF which will help towards flight and accommodation costs. We may also have a SWSF representative accompanying us as a team leader. This is all uncharted territory for us so will be very exciting. I plan to travel as team coach and will be proud to do so.

Covid also put paid to us attending the WCF annual assembly which was planned to take place in St Petersburg, Russia, earlier this month. Pragmatically this moved to being an online event. Understandable perhaps, but disappointing in that we couldn’t take place in the important networking that the Assembly allows, and of course seeing one of the more interesting cities in northern Europe.  

Moving forward, our relationship with the SWSF continues to grow, and we are developing a long term strategy to allow curling to be an inclusive and widespread sport in KSA. On that front, we recently welcomed our first wheelchair athlete onto the ice in Riyadh. It was wonderful to see how she, using a delivery stick was able to fully participate alongside able-bodied curlers, and share her very obvious enjoyment.  

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