(Reuters) - There is no precise word for ‘snow’ in the Amharic language of Ethiopia, but that did not stop the Teklemariam brothers from establishing the country’s first ski association and opening the doors to winter sports for young African athletes.
Drawing sporting inspiration from Ethiopia’s world-beating long distance runners and hoping to represent Ethiopia for the first time in the Winter Olympics, Yoseph, Benyam, and Robel Teklemariam founded the Ethiopian Ski Association (ESA) in 2005.
Robel competed at the 2006 and 2010 Games in Turin and Vancouver and has raised awareness of winter sports to Ethiopians around the world.
“Most Ethiopians that we meet or have commented online think it’s really cool and are often amazed that their country has a skier that represented them in the Winter Olympics,” Yoseph said in a telephone interview.
“Most never paid any attention to the Olympics, other than our famed runners in the Summer Olympics.”
Born in Ethiopia but raised in the United States, the Teklemariam brothers were exposed to winter sports at North Country School in the village of Lake Placid.
“Our first winter in New York City in 1983 was the first time we saw snow. But it wasn’t until Lake Placid that we saw real heavy snowfall,” said Yoseph said.
From 1983 to 1993, their mother worked as a United Nations official in New York, and in one of the world’s most isolated countries North Korea.
During the school year, the three brothers went to boarding schools in Colorado Springs and Lake Placid.
Yoseph Teklemariam runs an Ethiopian restaurant in Richmond, Virginia and the ESA is based out of his home office.
He has fond memories of his childhood in North Korea capital of Pyongyang, which he described as “safe” and having a “small, tight knit foreigner community,” though he said his family were initially spied on by their maid, who they later developed a friendship with.
After a successful high school and college skiing career in the United States, Robel wanted to ski on the world stage.
With the help of Benyam and Yoseph, who wrote the bylaws and engaged in an outreach program to secure funding from Ethiopians living abroad, Robel created the ESA.
“We get our funding primarily through individual donations,” said Yoseph. “During the months leading up to the Vancouver Games we secured a few private sponsorships.
“These weren’t major amounts of money, somewhere in the range of $6,000-8,000, but it was critical in getting our sole competitor from one qualifying race to the next, hotel expenses and various travel needs.”
At the Turin and Vancouver Olympics, the Teklemariam brothers were constantly mistaken for the Jamaican bobsleigh team.
“While walking around Vancouver, we often heard people shouting out: ‘Jamaican Bobsled!’ and we would retort: ‘Ethiopia Ski Team!’ Yoseph said.
“Our dreadlocks probably confused them.”
Yoseph said he wanted the ESA to follow the Jamaican bobsleigh model.
“Jamaica has an established bobsleigh program in place and continues to attract athletes to that sport, which is what we aim to do with the ESA,” he added.
Robel Teklemariam, who trained on roller skies in the Ethiopian mountains prior to the 2010 Olympics and is currently the director of the ski program at the Sahoro Resort in Japan, did not come close to being on the podium at the 2006 or 2010 Olympics.
However, the sight of an Ethiopian athlete competing in the Winter Games garnered attention for the ESA, which is putting the finishing touches to its official website.
“We knew there were many other Ethiopians who participate in winter sports, and it took the exposure of Robel’s participation in Vancouver 2010 for these kids to reach out to us and say, ‘Hey, I’m Ethiopian and I’m a skier too. How can I join the team?’ That is very exciting news,” Yoseph said.
There are no Ethiopian athletes competing in Sochi but Yoseph is hopeful that a young Ethiopian will compete in four years time when the Games come to South Korea’s Pyeongchang.
“There is an accomplished Ethiopian Alpine skier, Jarrell James, interested in competing at the 2018 Games in Korea. We are in the early stages of his training as he has set his mind on the exciting sport of skier cross,” Yoseph said.
Editing by Peter Rutherford