A New Era in the Mountain Life of Georgia | Interview with Eka Gabashvili

This year the World Championship was held in Bakuriani, Georgia, from February 16th to March 5th. Over seven hundred athletes from 42 different nations competed in freestyle, snowboarding, and freeskiing. The decision to designate Bakuriani as the host was made at the 2018 Congress of the International Ski Federation in Greece. Following the decision, the resort underwent an extensive infrastructure overhaul.

Eka Gabashvili, the vice-president of the Georgian Ski Federation, here shares the story of the World Championship in Bakuriani.

Photo Credits to Lasha Ghughunishvili / Forbes Woman Georgia

What led to the idea of Bakuriani hosting the World Championship? Could you give us an insight into its inception?

The idea was conceived in the mind of a certain person many years ago, based on their love for skiing, the mountains, and our nation. The transformation of this idea into reality was the product of relentless effort and unwavering faith. The history of our country’s love affair with the mountains can be traced back to the time when our ancestors began skiing on homemade skis in Bakuriani. Later, they discovered Gudauri, located between Pasanauri and Kazbegi, taking their children and introducing them to a more active lifestyle, all while fostering a sense of mutual care in them. This left an enduring impact on all of their lives, which could be no other way, given the enchantment that comes with mountain life.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a call for transformation and innovation in skiing. Progress would have been inconceivable without the insights of the older generation who possessed invaluable knowledge and experience. It was on this foundation that something new was constructed. Giorgi Ramishvili, the then-head of the ski federation, successfully adopted this model. He created a fresh structure, involving individuals who shared his passion for skiing, the mountains, and our country. That love for the country manifested itself in contemplating the future, asking what lay ahead in the next decade or two, and what legacy future generations would inherit. That is why I always express my gratitude towards Giorgi Ramishvili when speaking about what we have created and what we have done. He gave me the opportunity to contribute to this cherished cause, since he was the first to dare to suggest that Georgia host the World Championship.

An observation that holds personal significance for me is that when you forge the right path over virgin snow, it makes it easier for those behind you to follow your tracks. Do not be afraid of being overtaken by those following you. In fact, they should surpass you. You are laying the path for them to go even further. There’s a kind of power in channeling all your energy and all your awareness into that endeavor. That, to me, is the most precious sentiment.

Photo Credits to Lasha Ghughunishvili / Forbes Woman Georgia

What traits do you believe you possess that serve you well in the mountains?

A sincere passion for one’s work can serve a person well in many different ways. There’s nothing too big or too small. The ethos in the mountains is similar: when the person next to you needs your help, all official roles and duties are forgotten. You stand beside them, confronting and solving the problem together. This mindset has been consistent throughout my experiences. Even now, during the World Cup, this collaborative approach has inspired great enthusiasm among our international colleagues, since they see how each member is so selflessly contributing.

During the championship, we faced a shortage of manpower, requiring us to reallocate roles and impose double or triple workloads on our team members. However, they performed their tasks so efficiently and with such fervor that the additional burden was hardly noticeable, which astonished our foreign counterparts. For us Georgians, the World Championship was like a battle line drawn across Georgia. Crossing it demonstrated to the global community that our nation is home to hardworking, dedicated, and conscientious individuals. It affirmed that Georgia has the right to be a fully integrated member of the civilized world, and that we have indeed earned it. From the volunteers to the key members of the organizing committee, we have all been unified by this spirit. We aimed to prove that we could usher in a new era of mountain life in Georgia.

This fresh chapter signifies the beginning of many new changes. The World Cup and similar events elevate tourism to a new plateau, unlocking vastly differing economic prospects. Mountain regions are gradually decreasing in populace, and indeed, future development in these areas could offer immense benefits, ensuring that those who reside in the mountains live contented and prosperous lives.

What tangible opportunities can the World Cup generate for Georgia? How can we envision its legacy?

The preservation of the infrastructure developed specifically for this championship in Bakuriani is paramount. That alone will boost visitor numbers and create employment opportunities. It’s immensely significant and heartening to see how young skiers, who once felt their prospects to be dwindling in this sport, have regained a sense of hope and opportunity. Those individuals are the ones who will represent our country globally. They fully appreciate the worth of living and working in the mountain regions, which will ultimately translate into regional prosperity. Future leaders in the hospitality sector, particularly in mountainous areas, will likely be from among these successful, business-oriented athletes. They understand, from personal experience, the importance and value of guests and strive for quality service. In the long term, it is that view which will bring prosperity back to our country. That is why it is vital to support athletes from all regions, whether from Adjara, Svaneti, Gudauri, Bakuriani, or Tbilisi. The national team is full of talented athletes from all over, and their camaraderie is invaluable! The interconnectedness of all the regions is an extraordinarily big deal. Promoting these links is crucial for the development and success of our nation.

How old were you when you fell in love with mountains and skiing?

I belong to a generation that witnessed the golden era of successful sports schools. By late November, our classrooms would be nearly empty as everyone relocated to Gudauri for a six-month stint, living and studying at the school in Kvesheti. I considered that to be the most romantic and desirable experience and yearned to be part of it, but my parents would not allow me to join a sports school. It wasn’t until I gained some degree of independence in adulthood that skiing became an integral part of my life. I obtained my own skiing equipment, purchased a car at 18, and became self-sufficient. It was my dear friend, Niaz Diasamidze, who introduced me to skiing. He sacrificed a week-long holiday in Gudauri to teach me how to ski. Though he might only faintly remember it, his act of kindness has been invaluable to me. Later, I met my most favorite and exceptional compatriot, Giorgi Gotsiridze (Gotsa), and we have continued to share a love for the mountains together. That is when I truly realized the strength and love inherent in mountain life.

Photo Credits to Lasha Ghughunishvili / Forbes Woman Georgia

Your professional journey, from various roles to the Ski Federation, has certainly been complex. How do you perceive change? Do you embrace it, or simply accept what life presents?

Throughout my career, I’ve held numerous positions. I’ve worked in television, hosted my own show with friends, anchored “Moambe”, and handled various public relations roles. Above all, I find engaging with people, exchanging information, and understanding their feelings the most rewarding. I believe that such interactions are the greatest wealth life grants us. My first foray into the sports world was through the Football Federation, in the unique and specialized field of sports journalism. After the Federation, I began working with Giorgi Ramishvili at the “Silk Road Group”, where I’ve remained for the past 17 years. In general, I agree with the idea that one should change jobs every three to five years for self-development and to acquire new skills. However, in my case, my tenure at “Silk Road” has involved working on a wide array of diverse and interesting projects.

Has your journey changed you? Do people change?

People do not change when they fear the unfamiliar and, by extension, growth. Of course, I have changed. Each year, month, and even day brings its own change. Every day provides an opportunity to incorporate something new, and we wake up as a slightly different person each morning. One valuable lesson I’ve learned is not to try to correct others, even when I’m confident they’re wrong. It’s not my responsibility to make everyone perfect. The world is worth more than being perfect. I offer compliments freely and generously, since they bring joy not only to the recipient but also to me. I’d also like to share a piece of advice for those on the receiving end of a compliment, which is to never, ever refuse it, but simply say “thanks” and move on.

Maintaining a work-life balance is critical. How successful are you in striking this balance, or do you perceive these aspects as inherently intertwined?

It certainly can be challenging to find enough time for family interactions, especially in today’s fast-paced world. Balancing this precious time is a daunting task in its own right. In my family, we’ve established a shared commitment to the future, which allows us to understand each other’s busyness without complaint. This mutual understanding significantly contributes to our ability to deliver quality work.

There’s another crucial element that enables me to work both efficiently and calmly, and that is the presence of a trusted companion. The strength and joy derived from our friendship and partnership infuses each morning with the energy to create something new. We strive to foster new ideas and move forward with unwavering optimism. Those kinds of feelings have genuinely laid a robust foundation for our resilient relationship and family.

Did you participate in any sports during your childhood?

As a child I was immersed in Georgian dance, as part of Iamze Dolaberidze’s ensemble. I firmly believe that my relationship with Iamze and her work ethic significantly influenced my own approach to work. As a child, I wasn’t particularly driven by success, though, instead preferring to spend time with my friends. This often left me feeling somewhat dissatisfied, as though I hadn’t fully committed to something. Perhaps that is why I later imposed a high degree of responsibility on my children, emphasizing the importance of hard work. However, in retrospect, I no longer believe it’s appropriate to burden young people excessively. This generation knows what they are doing. Despite being labelled as the ‘gadget generation’, they are self-driven and prioritize what is most crucial here and now. Recent events have shown us that. As a parent of children born between 1992 and 2005, I can clearly see that.

Could you describe your management style and how it assists you in handling challenging and high-pressure situations?

My management approach is firmly rooted in years of professional experience and an intrinsic drive to understand people. When it comes to leading a sizable team, I believe that empathy is key. It’s crucial to discern precisely who can undertake specific tasks enthusiastically and without undue stress, to ensure high-quality work. Experience, both personal and that of others, has significant value. The crucial aspect is being able to acknowledge and learn from it without any difficulty. Every detail, no matter how minor it may seem, is important. The aggregate of these details creates a substantial foundation, which is necessary for the successful execution of any project. Communication isn’t just about disseminating information. It’s also just as much about being a good listener. This helps you to strike a balance and refine ideas. There are times when inspiration can emerge from an unlikely event or person. For instance, during one championship, we were involved in a highly intricate and stressful project, an experience we were largely unprepared for. We anticipated the inevitable emotional outbursts. However, those could be mitigated through proactive planning and the appropriate delegation of tasks. This, undoubtedly, was not solely my achievement but the effort of an incredibly smart and talented team. Although no one can be completely safeguarded against conflicts, it’s vital to understand that emotional outbursts are a completely natural occurrence when facing complex tasks. When the emotional intensity wanes, it becomes evident that even the most robust individuals have moments of vulnerability.

Photo Credits to Lasha Ghughunishvili / Forbes Woman Georgia

How is the gender equality within the Federation?

The men who work at the Ski Federation are already “envious” of the fact that their female co-workers are in the majority. It is the work that seems to outside eyes to be the most trivial that is often the most significant. Without that work, it would, in fact, be utterly impossible to achieve results that we could pride ourselves on. That is the work that women mostly do within the federation, unaffected by any “womanly weakness”. Such work often demands self-sacrifice, sleepless nights, being at the mountains at daybreak in wind, fog, and freezing conditions, lugging heavy packs on their backs, and overcoming more difficulties that are hard to even describe. Those problems must be faced with the feeling of “I can do it!”, that it is your task to complete, and if you even start to suspect that you may be burned out by it, right away somebody will always come to your side, somebody a slight bit “stronger”, who can make the impossible possible.

Women occupy strategically important positions among the organizers of the World Championship. Media and marketing communication, effectively holding events, and managing relationships with business partners are just some of the things we plan and accomplish together. Just look at their approach to the work and you will understand that they are moved by an almost otherworldly power, charged up with a magical energy rather characteristic of their ever-efficient age group. Looking at their generation fills me with an exceptional sense of optimism, which makes working with them a great joy and a great motivator.

Our exceptional team of women is support by strong men, such as the head of the federation, Zuka Kostava, who empowers us with his caring nature, encourages us, and always finds a way out of impossible situations. There are also the leaders of the organizers, Levan Metreveli and Vato Kopadze, with whom I am sure we can win any battle, since they have, over the years, developed into consummate professionals and peerless experts in this work, with a boundless love for the job itself. In short, we work in a state of spiritual and gender harmony at the federation, which is all thanks to each individual member of the team.

What is the current status of the Ski Federation and what plans do you have for its future?

Although not fully confirmed yet, we’re in the process of planning for the likelihood of hosting one World Cup and one European Cup stage annually in Georgia, in the same discipline featured at the World Championship. In addition, we stand a good chance of conducting rating competitions under the International Ski Federation (FIS), which is crucial for the development of our local athletes. It will help them accumulate points, build their ratings and so, potentially, make Georgia a desirable and attractive location for Eastern European athletes.

This year, Johan Eliasch, the president of the International Ski and Snowboard Federation, attended the World Championship. During his two-day visit, he, along with Giorgi Ramishvili, took a helicopter to explore areas in Svaneti that could be appealing for FIS to hold meetings for athletes in different seasons. This is an immensely significant future project which, if realized, could present a transformative view of Svaneti. Hosting the World Cup has opened up diverse avenues for the development of our country, and this is one such opportunity. The potential is vast, but the key lies in harnessing it effectively.

What has a person, who doesn’t ski and hasn’t yet experienced the mountain’s potential, missed out on?

It’s a strangely specific and exceptional feeling to miss out on. When a person starts skiing doesn’t matter. Interestingly, the older a person is when they start, the more likely they are to follow an instructor’s guidance effectively. Skiing has a unique characteristic, which is that, irrespective of whether you’re a novice, an average skier, or a world-class athlete, the joy derived from the act of skiing is entirely the same. So, I’d strongly encourage giving snowboarding or skiing a try. It might turn out to be one of your favorite pastimes.