- Alpine Skiing
Lebanese Alpine skier Chirine Njeim has gone from pioneer to pariah
Chirine Njeim is the second female Winter Olympian from Lebanon.
At the Salt Lake City and Vancouver Games, she was the country’s flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony. In 2005, she won bronze at the South American Cup in Chile. Once, she even shared the podium at a lower-level race with American Olympic stars Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso.
For more than half of her life, Njeim has lived and breathed Alpine skiing and representing her country.
Today, she feels like an outcast.
As athletes around the globe begin final preparations for the Sochi Olympics, the 29-year-old is at home in Chicago wondering why she isn’t headed to her fourth Games and, more significantly, why she is being shunned by the Lebanese Ski Federation.
“To be at this point is disappointing,” Njeim said. “I am not sure why everything went against me.”
Embedded video_content_type: Vancouver Olympic flashback: Lebanon women take to slalom
Jackie Chamoun, Njeim’s 2010 Olympic teammate, will be the lone female skier for Lebanon in Sochi. Since no Lebanese skiers rank in the top 500 in the world, based on points awarded for performance by the International Ski Federation (FIS), the country was allotted just one quota spot.
Njeim, however, said that she was told last year by her federation that the Olympic selection process would hinge not only on FIS points but also on results from the National Championships. She seemed like a lock after winning the giant slalom title by 3.41 seconds over teenager Natacha Mohbat and 5.78 seconds over Chamoun, and the slalom title by 2.29 seconds over Chamoun.
Two FIS races were held before the Nationals and three more afterward. Njeim skied out in the second run of one of those latter slaloms, a slip-up that she believes sealed her fate.
“I accept that Jackie is going and I am happy for my friend,” Njeim said. “But imagine if Lindsey Vonn fell in one random race and they told her, ‘You can’t go to the Olympics because you fell in this race,’ when she is the best skier out there and the person you need to represent your country.”
Freddy Kairouz, secretary general of the Lebanese Ski Federation, said it was made clear to Njeim that all of the races in Lebanon would count in the selection process.
“The Lebanese Championship in 2013 was based on the accumulation of points for all the races organized in Lebanon and not only the races classified under NC on the FIS website,” Kairouz wrote in an email. “The winners of the Lebanese Championship are Jackie Chamoun for slalom and Natacha Mohbat for giant slalom. I think Chirine was aware about the coefficient system because her club communicated the rules to her.”
Embedded owg_slideshow: Olympic flashback: Lebanon's Chirine Njeim at Olympics
According to FIS, of those seven races contested in Lebanon last season – three slaloms and four giant slaloms – Njeim won six of them, by an average of 3.96 seconds, with the one DNF. Kairouz, however, claims Njeim only won four, and her accumulated FIS point total left her behind the other two skiers.
“Chirine accumulated 126 points in all her races while Natacha and Jackie each got 152 points,” he wrote. “In all cases the qualification to Sochi was based on the FIS Olympic points.”
Njeim learned of the federation’s decision through a Facebook post by Chamoun.
For her part, Chamoun concedes that Njeim is the skier who gives the country its best opportunity for a good result at the Olympics.
“Chirine is the best skier in Lebanon,” she said. “Of course, I always think if Chirine could have been in my place maybe she could have made a better result for Lebanon.”
When asked about this perceived lack of transparency and communication, Njeim said she believes it stems from her no longer residing in Lebanon and also from lingering bad blood between her and the federation.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Spotlight: Jackie Chamoun
She was born and raised in Beirut during tumultuous times. Her father, Raymond, a chemical products tradesman, brought the family to the mountains in Faraya, about an hour northeast of the city, on weekends to ski. Njeim became hooked on the sport as a 3-year-old.
A few years after the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990, she began racing competitively. With the federation in shambles, the national Olympic committee plagued by corruption and infighting destroying most of the country’s skiing infrastructure, Njeim was sent abroad.
In her early teens, she trained for two years in France before moving to Salt Lake City in ninth grade to attend the Rowmark Ski Academy, the same school U.S. Olympian Picabo Street attended. Eventually she landed a scholarship to the University of Utah and competed at the NCAA level.
“The reason I left Lebanon was to get better training,” Njeim said. “I was so committed to the sport that I wanted a better training and I knew that could not get that in Lebanon. But I always skied in the name of Lebanon, no matter what race it was.”
Njeim competed proudly and without incident until 2010 when she claims she and her teammates were hindered by “very selfish” people in the Lebanese Ski Federation at the Vancouver Games.
“Our delegation had five people with them and they announced that each one of them were coaches or trainers or therapists,” she said. “When we got there, we had no coach and never had trainings from them. They would take our car and go shopping and so we couldn’t take it to go up to the hill in Whistler. They wanted to go to the Olympics for tourism and for fun.
“When television crews would approach us and say things like, ‘Oh, you’re from Lebanon. Tell us how you qualify.’ They would answer, ‘Well, we train our athletes in this way,’ and I just couldn’t take it because it was all lies. I got frustrated and we kind of got into a fight.”
As retribution for that fight, Njeim was suspended by the federation for three years. The federation issued letters to her and to FIS informing them of the suspension. It was at that point that the matter wound up in court as the Njeims sued Lebanese Ski. As retribution for the lawsuit, Njeim alleges that the federation reset her FIS points, essentially wiping clear her career body of work and making it almost impossible to regain the Top 500 world ranking she had attained.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Athletes from non-traditional winter Olympic countries headed to the Sochi Games
Jenny Wiedeke, a spokesperson for FIS, rebuked this allegation.
“Chirine Njeim was not registered as an active FIS skier and did not participate in any races in 2011,” Wiedeke wrote in an email. “As per FIS regulations, missing an entire season, outside of injury, results in a re-set of the points, so any points for the athlete before 2011 were not counted. The re-set had nothing to do with the National Association taking away the points, as that is indeed not possible for any National Association to do.”
During the course of the suit, Njeim said she revealed a recording of an argument she had with officials in Vancouver. The damning evidence resulted in her suspension being lifted after one year and forced the resignation of a number of officials. It has also begun ushering in some positive changes.
“They are definitely trying to do what’s best now,” she said. “I give them credit for that. It’s better but it’s still not there. There is a stubbornness that is tough to break. Every time you say something it’s, ‘No. She’s not right. I’m right.’ I think this is why, in the Middle East, nobody gets along with anyone because culturally we seem incapable of working as a group.”
Nevertheless, Njeim says her real bitterness stems from the fact that her offers to coach the country’s Olympic skiers in Sochi and beyond and to work with the federation in any meaningful capacity have been rebuked.
“Honestly, I can say that I would not have been physically prepared to compete in Sochi so I’m fine with it,” Njeim, who plans to try to qualify for the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics in the marathon, said. “But I know so much about the sport and have been involved with it for so long that I know I can help make a positive difference in Lebanon.
“After spending a lifetime dedicated to racing for Lebanon only to have Lebanon act like I don’t exist is what really hurts.”