By ZAHIR DHARSEE with
The 49th Ismaili Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, is also an enthusiastic and energetic sportsman
As the 2022 Winter Olympics are winding down in Beijing, China, with the remaining skiing races concluding on Saturday, February 19, 2022, we would like to reminisce with our Barakah readers about Mawlana Hazar Imam His Highness the Aga Khan’s skiing career, including his participation as a skier for Iran in the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1964. It may be noted that the Islamic Republic of Iran is represented in the current Beijing Olympics by a team of three skiers — a male and a female each in alpine skiing, and a male in cross country skiing.
His Highness the Aga Khan, respectfully addressed by his Ismaili followers as Hazar Imam (Present Imam — Spiritual Leader) has been a great sportsman all his life. Like his late grandfather, he has recommended sports and fitness to his Ismaili followers. He himself played ice hockey during his schooling years for the strong Le Rosey hockey team; he skied in the Winter Olympics and world ski championships; he played tennis; he led a four-man crew to victory in 1953 at Lucerne in the Swiss national open rowing championship; he threw the shotput; he played basketball when he had to fill in; and he played the outside left position for Harvard University’s soccer team, scoring occasionally. Mawlana Hazar Imam won almost every athletic medal and trophy Le Rosey school presented, including the Rita Hayworth Cup that was awarded to him for the giant slalom (skiing between poles). The award had been named after the mother of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s younger sister, Princess Yasmin.
His Highness the Aga Khan as a world and Olympic class skier
When skiing you are alone with nature; it can be tough and it is the toughness of the mountains that makes it very challenging….why did I start racing as I will never get to the top….The point is not getting to the top. The point is making improvement — His Highness the Aga Khan.
In the 1961 American documentary, entitled The Living Camera, the Aga Khan, a camera crew followed Mawlana Hazar Imam for six months and filmed him on his training in the Alpine mountain resorts in Switzerland with his personal trainer Hans Senger, who was a former Austrian champion.
In the documentary, the narrator notes that “Karim is in training for two big races……he is trying to excel in skiing in the European Olympic Class against the greatest skiers in world.” Mawlana Hazar Imam emphasizes in the same documentary that “when skiing you are alone with nature; it can be tough and it is the toughness of the mountains that makes it very challenging. When asked as to why did I start racing as I will never get to the top or anything. But the point is not getting to the top. The point is making improvement and it is a very tough battle.”
In the early 1960’s Mawlana Hazar trained as a skier with the the Austrian National Team, with Austrian Hans Senger as his coach. On January 13, 1962 Mawlana Hazar Imam won the “Roberts of Kandhar” challenge cup at Davos, Switzerland, the oldest challenge cup in the world for downhill ski racing.
Holding British nationality, he then represented Britain in the 1962 world championships at Chamonix, France. Recalling the race, he is quoted in the Sports Illustrated article as saying: “In the downhill training I took a fall and banged myself up. I felt punchy afterward and missed qualifying for the slalom final by a second. I fared better in the giant slalom, however, and finished 37th.”
How good was Mawlana Hazar Imam as a skier? The Sports Illustrated staff reporter observed, “A very good one. He is not in a class with the top 40 in the Alps, but he is close. In major European ski competitions he is likely to place 50th out of a field of 100.”
And why did Mawlana Hazar Imam participate as a skier? He answered, “I decided to participate in ski races because I love competitive sports and rough training. Good or bad skier, I knew the training and the racing to be excellent discipline. I like the atmosphere in ski racing, too. It is a democratic sport. One’s name does not count.”
After representing Britain in the world championships in 1962, the British had hoped that Mawlana Hazar Imam would represent them at the Innsbruck Olympics in Austria in 1964, but the Iranians had invited him first. Moreover, the British team’s training period coincided with independence ceremonies in Zanzibar on December 10, 1963 and in Kenya on December 12.
The 1964 Iranian Winter Olympics team comprised four participants and Mawlana Hazar Imam was the captain. (A reference to his participation as Iran’s team member at Innsbruck can be found at the winter Olympic Games website HERE)
The Innsbruck Olympics were held from January 29 to February 9, 1964. Unfortunately as many readers of Barakah may remember that at the time, the Ismaili Jamat and other communities were severely affected by the January 1964 Revolution in Zanzibar, and Mawlana Hazar Imam was extremely worried about the situation. He noted in the Sports lllustrated article that he was not prepared for the Olympics as he did not have his mind 100% on the races. In one of his practice runs he even ran into the branches of a tree escaping serious injuries. However, he placed 53rd out of 96 in the giant slalom and 59th out of 84 in the downhill. “It was,” as he put it, “respectable if not glorious.”
Despite wishing to give up skiing during the mid 1960’s Mawlana Hazar Imam continued to ski well into his 70’s. We hope that this brief mention of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s skiing career, as a World Class and Olympic Skier, in the context of the current Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, gives our readers a perspective and connection between the world of sports and Mawlana Hazar Imams skiing career and the Imamat’s emphasis on sports to improve the quality of lives of the Jamat.
During his visit in December 1964 to Khulna, Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), Mawlana Hazar Imam thanked the religious night school students and teachers for gifting him with a tennis racquet and tennis balls. He said he was touched by the gifts and told everyone present that he always had one principle that we should all follow: we should all do a little bit of exercise everyday to improve the quality of our work and to rest our minds and to be well and fit for the following day of hard work. (Farman Mubarak, published by the Ismailia Association for Pakistan, 1964 visit)
His Highness the Aga Khan: An injury from a skiing accident did not stop him from continuing his journey to be with his East African Ismaili followers
The following is an excerpt from Barakah’s article, Blessings of Our Forefathers: The 1966 Visit of Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, to Iringa, Tanzania submitted by the family of Alijah Akbarali and Alijani Kulsumbai Mohamed Hamir.
On November 4th, 1966, as Mawlana Hazar Imam’s plane circled the Iringa airport, there was palpable excitement as the leaders of the Jamat anxiously awaited the arrival of our beloved Imam. Mawlana Hazar Imam had taken a break on his extended tour of East Africa to return to Europe to attend to some personal matter. Iringa was the second stop on his return visit from Europe. As the ebullient Imam emerged from his plane, without regard to his evident infirmary, with a plastered foot and a walking cane, Jamati leaders’ ecstatic emotions turned to one of unexpected concern. But the Imam was quick to calm the leaders’ fears about his infirmed foot. The Jamat was to learn that his prior foot injury from a skiing accident had flared up as a result of his intense travel schedule, necessitating return to Europe for consultation with his orthopedist and resulting in his plastered foot. His orthopedist advised our Mawla to refrain from further travel to avoid stressing his foot. Our Imam would have none of it! His Jamats’ were waiting for him and he was not going to disappoint them! And so, we saw our Imam ease down the plane gangway…Read full Iringa visit narrative.
Date posted: February 19, 2022.
About the authors: Zahir Dharsee came to Toronto, Ontario, Canada from East Africa in 1974. Zahir is a retiree from the Federal Public Service. He is currently pursing a Masters of Arts degree in History, at York University in Toronto. His area of specialization is researching the British Empire and its Colonization and Immigration policies and objectives. He lives in Mississauga, Ontario. Among his pieces published in Barakah and Simerg are A Review of the Silk Roads Exhibition at the Aga Khan Museum, Premier Davis and His Highness the Aga Khan, and Nairobi’s Iconic Town Jamatkhana.
Malik Merchant is the founding publisher and editor of Barakah (2017) as well as its two sister websites Simerg (2009) and Simergphotos (2012). An IT consultant for more than 30 years, he now engages in family related projects. His passion for literature and community publications began in his childhood years through the work of his late parents Jehangir (d. 2017) and Malek Merchant (d. 2021), who devoted their lives to the service of the Ismaili community, its institutions and the Imam-of-the-Time. In the UK, Malik edited Ilm magazine with his father. The internet encouraged him to launch his first website, Simerg, in 2009. A resident of Ontario for almost 4 decades, he recently relocated to Alberta. He has an animal loving daughter Dr. Nurin Merchant; she is a vet and practices in Ontario.
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