- Alpine Skiing
Alpine skier Jackie Chamoun defies odds to make it from Beirut to big time
Growing up in Beirut, the Winter Olympics were the farthest thing from Jackie Chamoun’s mind.
For most casual sports fans, associating Alpine skiing with a country like Lebanon would seem equally far-fetched.
But for the second time in her career, Chamoun has defied the odds by coming out of a non-traditional winter sports nation to compete on the grandest stage. She will be the lone female skier for Lebanon and one of only two on the team, joining men’s skier Alex Mohbat.
“It is very nice to represent our country,” Chamoun said. “People are surprised to see us there because they don’t expect Lebanon in the Winter Olympic Games. But we are really glad to have this chance to be a part of the Olympics and be able to exchange with people from other nationalities and talk about our culture and discover other cultures.”
Skiing is definitely not on the list of things that usually come to mind when one tries to imagine life in Lebanon, the small Arab country on the Mediterranean. Images of the decades-long civil war tend to dominate Western perception of the nation more so than skiers racing down one of its six ski resorts.
“In Lebanon skiing is not as important as it is in Europe,” Chamoun said. “It is not the national sport. People prefer to watch basketball or football. Of course, when the Olympics come and someone is qualified for the Olympics all of the newspapers write about it, people talk about it. But the sport does not have the same place in a country of the Middle East as in Europe.”
Embedded video_content_type: Vancouver Olympic flashback: Lebanon women take to slalom
While Lebanon might not appear to be fertile ground for ski racers, the country has a long-standing Winter Olympic tradition. It made its first appearance at the Games in St. Moritz in 1948, where Ibrahim Geagea and Munir Itani competed in Alpine skiing. In 1980, the country sent its first female Olympic athlete, skier Farida Rahmed, to Lake Placid. Chirine Njeim returned Lebanese women to the Games in 2002 and the country has had female representation ever since.
“I admired what she did because I learned that you have to be really, really strong and really motivated in order to follow your dreams,” Chamoun said. “Chirine gave everything and started doing international competitions. We all admired her in Lebanon and looked at her like we one day wanted to be like her.”
For Chamoun, that road began when she was three years old. On weekends, her father, Gabriel, would take the family skiing at Faraya-Mzaar, the mountain about one hour northeast of Beirut which is home to the largest ski resort in the Middle East.
“My dad taught me how to ski at first and then I skied with the father of my cousins,” Chamoun said. “He has a ski school and I started skiing there every weekend. Then I started with a club, Faraya Mzaar. Once I started training there, I never stopped.”
Chamoun soon learned the difficulties of trying to progress as a ski racer in the Middle East.
Unlike in other countries in the region, Chamoun said she never encountered obstacles as a female athlete – “Lebanon is more open-minded,” she said. But the country’s geography and tradition make for a variety of other challenges.
First, the season is incredibly short – three to four months at the longest – meaning domestic training opportunities are limited. And although some slopes are situated at elevations as high as 6,600-feet, the slopes are short and the snow is soft, making it difficult to adequately prepare for the longer, harder race courses in Europe.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Spotlight: Jackie Chamoun
“There are many slopes that are longer and steeper on which we could train but it’s forbidden for us because these slopes are private and people who pay to ski like to come and ski on these slopes,” Chamoun said.
Financially, Chamoun said none of the skiers in Lebanon have sponsors so it is up to each individual to pay for their own travel expenses incurred for off-season training camps – she does one per year – and competitions, as well as equipment. Chamoun said she is fortunate to receive Salomon skis from a local ski shop, eliminating one large expense.
“I am lucky enough to have parents who always supported me and my skiing so finances weren’t a big problem for me,” Chamoun said.
She added that the cultural focus is less on sports and more on more academic pursuits. In recent years, only Njeim, who left for France and the United States, has been able to travel abroad for skiing.
“When I was young, I told my parents that I wanted to stop school in Beirut and wanted to go away to ski,” Chamoun said. “If I could, I would have left Lebanon at the age of 12 or 13 to go and ski in Europe or in U.S. to follow my dream. But it’s difficult because in Lebanon we think more of education and studies and less about sport careers. Also, we don’t have the facilities or the conditions to compete at an international level.”
After her parents refused to let her leave as a 12-year-old, Chamoun continued her limited training in Lebanon. A year later, she competed internationally for the first time, traveling to FIS races in Topolino and Pinocchio, Italy. It was there that she confronted a stark reality: Lebanese skiers could not compete with the best of the world under current conditions.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Olympic flashback: Lebanon's Chirine Njeim at Olympics
“When we went there, we realized that it was not really possible to compete with the best,” she said. “To go to international competitions, you have to be first in Lebanon so the competition is tough but really nice between us. But when we are somewhere else, we can think only to do our best compared to our level. We don’t think about doing better than the best because it is not possible with our training.”
Chamoun left Lebanon when she was 17 to begin her university studies at the Glion Institute of Higher Learning in Switzerland, which afforded her the opportunity to also continue skiing. She qualified for the Vancouver Olympics as Lebanon’s second skier, and finished 54th in the slalom.
“The most incredible thing for us is just to be there and to realize there is a crowd cheering and people encouraging us up at the start,” she said. “It was a great feeling. I had nothing to lose so I went to do these runs and enjoy it as much as possible.”
Embedded owg_slideshow: Athletes from non-traditional winter Olympic countries headed to the Sochi Games
After Vancouver, Chamoun stopped competing for two years to focus on finishing her degree in sports event management. Afterward, she returned home to Lebanon. With no full-time job and the Sochi Olympics on the horizon, she rededicated herself to the sport in December of 2012. By the end of 2013, she had done enough to earn a second Olympic bid, and the opportunity to further the sport’s popularity at home.
“When you see our past results, it’s not really encouraging,” she said. “In the future I would like to have plans for sports in Lebanon and for skiing and to try to put in place facilities to encourage young people and to have the funds to influence authorities to invest themselves in the sport. We can do a lot to improve the level.”
That improvement is likely decades from coming to fruition. Last April, she took a job back in Geneva. While circumstances certainly pointed to it being a good time begin a new chapter in her life, the Olympic experience has left her incapable of turning her back on skiing.
“When I finished the first Olympics it was so incredible and so magical I immediately wanted to go to Sochi,” she said. “It’s important to keep on dreaming and to have goals. If you are not dreaming about something you are never going to get there.”
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