Pakistan, which has sent athletes to previous Winter Olympics, this year sends a two-man delegation — an uncle and his nephew — to compete in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Muhammad Karim, 22, and his nephew Syed Human, 26, are both from the Naltar Valley, a village located in Gilgit Baltistan, the northernmost region of the country.
Karim was the sole athlete from Pakistan at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“It feels very good. Before I was alone, and now, God willing, we have a team,” Karim told VOA in Urdu.
He said he has been able to give his nephew Human tips about preparing for the Olympics as well as how to stay relaxed at this level of competition.
Alpine, cross-country skiing
Although the two are participating in different events, he said they support each other. Karim will compete in the Alpine skiing competition and Human in cross-country skiing.
As a child, Karim started skiing for fun and took part in competitions that were organized for kids. He then joined the Shah Khan School, a ski school that was set up in Naltar Valley. In 2007, he first visited South Korea for a junior championship. Afterward, he was sent to Austria for training.
Now, Karim has returned to South Korea, this time for the Olympics. He is participating in two Alpine skiing events: giant slalom and slalom, scheduled for Feb. 18 and 22, respectively.
Coming from a rural valley, Karim said it makes him very happy and proud to now represent the country on an international level.
Human echoed that sentiment. He is in the Pakistan Army and is a member of its skiing team. He competes in the men’s 15km free cross-country skiing event on Friday.
Like his uncle, Human’s interest in skiing started at home, in the Naltar Valley.
The Ski Federation of Pakistan opened a school in his village. He was inspired to join after watching others train. Showing a talent for cross-country skiing, he was sent abroad to train. Later, he began competing at a national level, and now internationally.
“After the Ski Federation of Pakistan sent me abroad for training in 2010-2011, it was on my mind and became my mission to represent Pakistan in cross-country skiing at the Olympics,” he said, adding that dream has come true now in South Korea.
While Naltar Valley is a remote valley and a difficult area to access, it has been central to the development of skiing in Pakistan.
Future of Pakistan winter sports
Shahid Nadeem, secretary general of the Ski Federation of Pakistan, said the first ski resort was opened in Naltar Valley in 1958, to provide training to the Pakistan air force pilots. It later allowed civilians to train.
In 1990, the Ski Federation of Pakistan was created. Twenty years later, Pakistan participated for the first time at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. The sole athlete was Muhammad Abbas, also from Naltar Valley.
Back in Pakistan, the families of Karim and Human are praying for and supporting the two men.
“They are hopeful that we will return to Pakistan having given a great performance, InshAllah, we will keep this hope alive and try to give our best performance,” Karim said.
In Pyeongchang, they were given a warm welcome by the Pakistani embassy and Korean students, whom Karim said made him feel at home. The two men practice on the ski slopes every day, as well as in the gym, they said.
Nadeem, of the Ski Federation, accompanied Karim and Human to Pyeongchang. He said he believes Pakistan, home to some of the world’s highest mountains, has a lot of potential for growth in winter sports.
By the 2022 Winter Olympics in China, Nadeem said he hopes Pakistan will be represented in even more events.
He said his organization is trying to develop athletes in other winter sports, including ice skating, ice hockey and snowboarding. They are also focusing on female participation, with the hope to have a woman qualify for alpine skiing at the Beijing Winter Games.