SAPPORO, Feb 27 ― A fanciful idea that started out as a joke among young members of one of Malaysia's most prominent families has snowballed into a fully fledged ski team and dreams of Olympic success.
Despite being a tropical, snowless country, Malaysia has created its own alpine ski team ― albeit with only two members ― which is currently competing at the 8th Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan.
Unlike the antics of Venezuela's Adrian Solano, who wobbled amateurishly around the slopes at last week's Nordic World Ski Championships in Finland, both Malaysians are accomplished skiers, driven by the ambition of promoting winter sports in a country where football and badminton dominate.
Partly inspired by the Jamaican bobsledders who defied conventional wisdom by competing at the 1988 Winter Olympics, more and more warm-weather countries have been entering teams in snow and ice events in recent years.
Othman Mirzan, the grandson of former Malaysian prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, thought his country should do the same after flippantly suggesting his family had already begun their own team.
“It started as a joke. My siblings and I all skied together and the running joke was always that we were the Malaysian ski team because we're the only Malaysians people see skiing,” he said.
“From that, the idea kind of grew. It started out as 'Let's see if this is viable' and then when we figured out it was viable we had to see what it takes.
“There's a lot of rings you have you have to jump through. I was 17 at the time and no one takes a 17-year-old seriously when they are trying to start a national association, but the Malaysian Olympic Committee were very enthusiastic.”
Mahathir 'doesn't like the cold'
Mirzan, 22, said his famous grandfather, Malaysia's prime minister from 1981-2003 and still highly influential in the country, was an enthusiastic supporter of the team, although he hasn't seen them race live.
“He doesn't like the cold so he doesn't come to the races but I know that he's very proud of what we've done,” Mirzan told AFP.
“At the end of the day his mantra for his years in office was 'Malaysia can' ― so being able to represent Malaysia in a field that has never been represented before, for me, that is pushing the envelope and what he was and is all about.”
After setting up a national ski federation, Mirzan moved to the United States, enrolling at the University of Colorado, but remained the sole member of the Malaysian team.
Unbeknown to him, a former coach of top US skier Lindsay Vonn had implanted a similar idea in the head of another young Malaysian, Jeffrey Webb, who was born in Kuala Lumpur but moved to the US when he was five years old.
A competitive ski racer, Webb caught the eye of the coach at a training academy in Washington state, who suggested he look at the possibility of skiing for his native country on the international stage.
Webb, just 18 and still in high school, never took the idea too seriously until his father read in a ski magazine that Mirzan had started a Malaysian ski federation.
“We go back to Malaysia for three months every year and when we were there we contacted the Malaysian minister of sport,” Webb's father Steve explained.
“We were thinking it might take about two years to get through to someone as important as a minister, but he was very interesting in developing new sports and to our surprise he actually contacted us straight away and said come in and talk.
“It was really perfect timing, and the rest is history.”
Mirzan and Webb soon met up in Minnesota and started hatching their plans to put Malaysia on the alpine skiing map, but not as a novelty act ― they both wanted to be competitive.
Mirzan broke the ice when he entered this year's world championships in St Moritz, Switzerland. Then both were selected for the Asian Winter Games, with Webb finishing 15th and Mirzan 24th in the men's giant slalom.
Now they have their sights set on the Winter Olympics, and again the timing seems perfect with Pyeongchang, South Korea hosting the games in 2018 then Beijing in 2022.
“It's pretty neat that a small country like Malaysia can compete against these bigger countries and this has been a great experience,” Webb said.
“I would love to go to the Olympics one day but I just wouldn't want to go just for the sake of going. I would love to go and compete up there with everyone else and pull off a big result for Malaysia.” ― AFP