WHISTLER (Reuters) - Samir Azzimani felt so honored to qualify for his first Winter Olympics in Vancouver that he decided to share the privilege.
The only athlete representing Morocco in Canada, the France-born Alpine skier is coming with eight secondary school children from Woippy, a depressed suburb of eastern French town Metz that made headlines for riots last month.
Azzimani, who grew up in a rough area of Colombes, outside Paris, simply wanted to share his dream with youngsters from a similar background.
“I‘m organizing everything myself,” the 32-year-old told Reuters in a telephone interview before flying to Canada for the Games starting on Saturday.
“The idea is to allow them to see the Games from the inside,” he added. “Finding the money and getting all the authorizations was hard but the toughest part was to convince the school.”
Hardly anybody in France knew where Woippy was until youths torched cars and clashed with police there in January after a young man died while trying to flee police on a scooter.
Living there is tough but there is hope, as Azzimani can testify with his own story.
“Their adventure is more important than mine,” the man who will proudly bear the Moroccan flag at the opening ceremony said of the Woippy children he is taking along.
It was a school trip when he was six that introduced the young Samir to Alpine skiing, an expensive sport not anybody can afford.
He was so good at it that he soon become a competitor and a ski instructor, ironically in the posh French Alps resort of Courchevel, where Russian millionaires are a more common sight than suburban children.
Not everybody can come to the Olympics. To be eligible, skiers must win a certain number of points from second-tier races, often set in exotic locations such as China, New Zealand or Iran, where Azzimani managed to qualify for the slalom last month.
“It was all very tiring but it was worth it,” said the Moroccan skier, who will also compete in the giant slalom.
Azzimani’s Olympic dream is nothing new but threatened never to come true after he failed to qualify for the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City and was ruled out of the Turin Games four years later by a shoulder injury.
Now he has made it and knows a podium is outside his reach, which does not mean he has no ambition.
“There will be a guy from Ghana and also one from Senegal,” he said. “If I beat them, I’ll be the champion of Africa.”
(Additional reporting by Clement Dossin)
Editing by Miles Evans