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Moroccan Strives to Be First
Belgium – When it comes to Alpine skiing, Morocco’s Sarah Ben Mansour trains on little more than a mound. In February, though, she will be amid the Italian peaks, hoping to become the first African woman to ski at the Olympics.
In the flattest of fields in Flanders stands a tiny artificial slope where the Belgian-born Ben Mansour swishes down for 10 seconds before she has to brake sharply and be pulled up again – 100 metres to the top of the hill, ready for another frustratingly short run.
At 18, she can only dream about training on real snow, real slopes. Yet she also knows many talented European and American skiers will never make it to the Olympics because their qualifying standards and competition are much tougher.
“I do realize I am lucky,” she said.
The daughter of a Moroccan mother and Belgian father, she was born just outside the international port of Antwerp but always held the Moroccan nationality and family name of her mother, belying the clear Antwerp twang in her soft-spoken Dutch.
Despite the possibilities it has given her at the Winter Games, her nationality has taken away opportunities. While promising Belgian athletes can be given a sports-oriented education at special schools, she cannot. Instead, she has left school and is studying on her own to get a high school degree, adding that lonely pursuit to her daily training regimen.
In that sense, she shares some of the identity problems of millions of youngsters of African heritage in Europe and she, too, complains of the uneasy feeling of never fully fitting in.
“For the Belgians, I am Moroccan. For the Moroccans, I am Belgian,” she said.
At home, she speaks Arabic with her mother and enjoys Muslim traditions and celebrations. When she is in full training though, she applies the Ramadan rules liberally, arguing the religion does not force you to go against your body. On the streets, she looks like any other western European teenager.
“It is always different. People in skiing consider me Belgian because I live there, even though I tell them I ski for Morocco,” she said.
Skiing for Morocco, alas, is no badge of honour.
At the Albertville Winter Games in 1992, a Moroccan skier was so inept during the super G that he fell several times, but got up each time, determined to complete his Olympic run. It was a national embarrassment.
“It caused a scandal. Even now he is still shown on ‘funniest video’ shows in Europe,” said Derek Giroulle, her father and coach. His performance helped persuade the IOC to toughen the entry requirements for athletes, seeking to keep “Eddie the Eagle” lookalikes at home.
Ben Mansour had to pass tougher requirements before qualifying for Turin last year, but feels a skiing stigma still sticks to her country.
“I know how it goes – they see ‘Morocco’ and they already start giggling. People look at you and they don’t say anything, but you can see what they are thinking,” she said.
One thing is clear: She will not be going for medals in the slalom and giant slalom – an honourable finish will do.
“I have to project a better image for Morocco. If I crash, I will not climb back up. It can happen to everyone, even Bode Miller. I won’t be able to keep up with the best, but I will not look like a fool,” she said.
Watching her swoosh down the tiny training slope, sometimes running gates to prepare for her slalom competitions, she looks anything but foolish. She started skiing as a kid when her parents went on a winter holiday, and was smitten.
Belgium is a country where it almost never snows and where the highest point stands at less than 690 metres (2,300 feet). The closest place for real skiing is in France’s Vosges region, almost 480 kilometres (300 miles) away. Nevertheless, she made her way through the youth ranks and last season finished 35th in the slalom at the world junior championships.
Her African skiing experience is limited to two outings in the Moroccan Atlas mountains, where she gave demonstrations to local skiers.
Money is in short supply, and she sometimes has had to skip races to save money. Even now, Giroulle is negotiating with the Moroccan federation for subsidies to send Ben Mansour to the French Alps just ahead of the Olympics. The Moroccan team also will include a Paris-based male skier.
Her training now is done on the 100-metre hill at the Casablanca ski centre – the name is purely coincidental, and has nothing to do with the Moroccan seaport – where the Olympic rings are painted against a white background. The black ring, symbolizing Africa, holds all of Ben Mansour’s attention.
There’s even the chance Ben Mansour will not be the first African woman to ski in an Olympics. Algeria, too, might send a woman skier to Turin. The International Skiing Federation said it knows of no African woman in Olympic Alpine skiing up to now.
“After all these years of having no one, somebody will be there,” Ben Mansour said. “It fills me with pride.”