by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

MERIBEL, France — There I was, going down the mountain, when I bumped into the entire Indian Olympic team.

Both of them.

“Where’s the rest?” I asked the two skiers.

“Hello, yes,” they said.

“No, no. The rest of your team. What happened? Miss plane? Bus go off cliff?”

“Hello, yes,” they said.

There was no missed plane. No bus off the cliff. These two guys, Nanak Chand and Lal Chuni, both about 5 foot 9, with black hair and awed expressions, were indeed the entire Olympic team from India. That’s India we’re talking about now. New Delhi? Bombay? Sixteen to a room? That India?

This is not some tiny country like Jamaica or the Virgin Islands — both of which have more than two athletes in these Games. The last time I checked, India’s population was NEARLY 900 million. More than three times the population of the United States. More than three times the people in Russia, or the CIS, or whatever they call it now.

Nine hundred million people.

Two athletes.

“Don’t you have any skaters?” I asked.

“No skaters,” they said.

“Bobsled or luge?”

“No thing like that in India.”

“Well, how about other skiers? I mean there’s only two of you.”

“We are only two who make standard.”

“You live in the mountains?”

“Live in Himalayas.”

“Lots of skiing there?”

They looked at each other. “Skiing, yes. Chair lift, no.”

No chair lift? Training was an uphill climb

No chair lift. I had just met the only skiers in the Olympic Games who climb up the mountain, put their skis on, ski down, take their skis off, then climb back up the mountain.

That can really cut down on training runs.

“One hour to top,” Nanak said. “Five minutes to bottom. Soon, you are very tired.”

Like I said.

Now, just as I was wondering if this whole thing was a setup — maybe a new TV show called “Calcutta’s Funniest Home Videos” — along came an older man in an Indian team coat. He smiled as he grabbed my hand.

“Hello, hello. You are most welcome.”

Turns out he was the coach, the trainer, and the head of the Olympic committee. I think he also waxed the skis. His name was Singh Hukum. He spoke English. And he verified everything. He said poverty and the political situation have kept India from developing more winter athletes — or even building chair lifts. He said the Games were not even televised in his country.

“For these boys, this is only their third mountain. They come in hope of a miracle. In our country we believe in miracles.”

“What would be a miracle in their event?”

He asked them in Indian, then smiled.

“Finish the race. And not come in last.”

I thought they were shooting a little high.

But who knows? After riding the chair lift, they might have so much excess energy they’ll win the gold medal. You never know.

And that’s the point of this column. . . . Many will lose if Games restricted

There is talk about upping the standards at the Olympics. Some of the
“purer” athletic types have complained about the likes of Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, the clumsy British ski jumper, or the Jamaican bobsled team, which sometimes comes down on its heads. Critics say Olympic competition should be for the world’s best, not the whole world.

I say no. Actually, I say let those critics walk up Nanak’s mountain and try skiing down. See how pure they feel then.

The Olympics have always been about participation. For every three medalists, there are 50 athletes who go home with only the memory of having tried. And for most of them, that’s enough.

It will be for Nanak and Lal, when they ski the slalom later this week. Already they had a chance to watch the downhill competition (“Most exhilarating,”) and meet Italian superstar Alberto Tomba. (“He is very, very better than us.”)

It tells you something about the state of the world when a country like India can barely afford to develop two skiers. But it also tells you how much a couple of kids might need a dream like the Olympics to give them some light. Who cares where they finish? Who cares if they slow down the race? It’s once every four years. We can wait.

“Excuse us, we must train now,” the coach said. And he pointed his kids to a line of people at the bottom of the mountain. Their eyes lit up, and they raced off.

I have a feeling about these guys. Here it is: I don’t think they’ll win the slalom.

But I bet they set a record for chair lifts.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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