The Winter Olympics kicks off on February 9 in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Over the course of two weeks, the best athletes in stuff like skiing, figure skating and curling (the one with the brooms) will compete to take home the gold medal.
Given the levels of ice and snow involved in these sports, the vast majority of competitors come from countries where ice and snow tend to occur naturally.
However, almost every Winter Olympics in recent memory has seen an athlete (or athletes) compete in an event despite hailing from a country where snow is about as frequent as an England World Cup victory, and ice only comes in drinks. We’re talking the Jamaican bobsleigh team, the German prince who definitely didn’t buy his place in Mexico’s ski ‘team’, or that Australian speed skater who won Gold because everyone else fell over.
In the qualifiers for this year’s competition, 22-year-old Zahra Lari could’ve become the first figure skater to represent the United Arab Emirates at the winter games. Unfortunately, she fell short.
Even so, she is still a trailblazer despite her failure to qualify. Lari is the first professional figure skater to compete internationally wearing a headscarf. While she won’t be travelling to South Korea, her journey up to this point suggests she has the determination and drive to qualify for the next Winter Olympics.
Speaking to CNN, Lari said: ‘I began skating when I was 12 years old, after watching the Disney movie ‘Ice Princess’.
Lari would skate before and after school at the only rink in Abu Dhabi, located within Zayed Sports City. Given the standard of dress demanded by competitive figure skating, her chosen sport did not always sit well with the conservative culture of UAE.
‘My father felt that it went too much against our normal traditions and culture for a girl to compete in sports,’ she remembers. Initially, Lari and her father would attend competitions but only as spectators. However, he would eventually give her permission to take part.
Why? Because he saw the enthusiasm and passion she had for it. This was no fad. ‘Now he is my biggest supporter,’ Lari said.
When Lari competes in professional competitions she wears a modified version of the figure-skating outfit. Transparent fabrics are replaced with opaque cloth and she wears leggings and a headscarf.
At a competition in 2012, Lari was docked a point for this outfit. The sports governing body, the ISU, has a strict judging system that grades not just your moves, but your appearance. Yet at a more recent event, Lari was given an exemption from the rule governing outfits, a change the ISU is still in the process of formalising.
But even if this issue remains, and even if Lari won’t be at Pyeongchang 2018, she’s achieved a lot in a sport where she’s had no example to follow. Last year, she was featured in a Nike campaign that championed Arab female athletes, and she’s worked with her parents to establish the first formally recognised figure skating club in UAE.
Even if she quits figure skating tomorrow, Lari will always represent the wider cultural shifts taking place in sport. However, we expect we’ll be seeing her on the Olympic stage before she decides to hang up her skates.
‘My goals go beyond being the first person to represent the UAE at a Winter Olympics….I want to compete at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships and the World Championships. These competitions are my current goal.’