LILLEHAMMER, Norway—The year was 1994. Armenia had been struggling as an independent republic for three years and needed a lift.
The country was still in recovery from a devastating earthquake in 1988 that took 25,000 lives and left another 300,000 homeless.
Poverty and depression were rampant everywhere.
Along came two Armenian-American patriots who excelled for the Providence “Varantian” Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) Chapter, and carried the weight of a rented bobsled on their shoulders—and their nation.
Kenny Topalian and Joe Almasian became instant household names as the first athletes ever to represent Armenia at the World Olympic Games in Lillehammer that year.
The pair couldn’t tolerate any more bad news from their ancestral homeland and decided to “hitch a ride on dreams and a prayer.”
“Bosnia is in the news every day but Armenia is in just as bad a situation,” Topalian brought out that year. “A million trees were cut down for heat, an ecological disaster. Things are bad, very bad.”
So the two young men went out and did the unthinkable. They declared dual citizenship, rented a used bobsled from the American Samoans, and spent thousands of dollars from their own pocket to compete.
There were the 10-hour round-trips by car to Lake Placid so they could learn to bobsled. There were the trial runs in different parts of the world. Food. Lodging. Uniforms. Equipment. Registration fees. Nothing seemed negotiable, even the $1,600 they shelled out for the borrowed bobsled.
“People would ask who was sponsoring us,” Almasian recalled.
“You’re looking at them,” I would say. “I’m sponsoring Kenny. He’s sponsoring me.”
Those who watched the opening ceremonies that year saw the two athletes, joined by a small contingent, approach the stadium crowd with the Armenian tricolor hoisted high. Over a billion viewers throughout the world sat before their TV sets and felt the emotion. They heard “Mer Hairenik” played.
The mission had been accomplished. Where they were to finish was incidental. The albatross that so plagued the country of Armenia had been alleviated, at least for one brief interval.
“The fact we followed the American team kept the camera’s eye focused on this team,” Almasian noted. “Many other countries never got that privilege, especially the smaller ones. Armenia had unfurled its flag to the world.”
The determined duo did Armenia proud that year, finishing 36th while beating out 6 other teams. Time-wise, the Armenians were 9 seconds from a gold medal won by the Swiss, while two American tandems could do no better than 13th and 14th.
“There was a very small window of opportunity to get represented at these games,” Almasian recalled. “It took a year of training. We didn’t officially qualify until three weeks before the Olympics.”
As they made the mile descent four times in competition, the Armenians were greeted by a host of Armenian flags which gave them an added dose of pride and energy. They had quite the cheering section, including those who were clearly rooting for the underdog.
Among those watching and counseling was Paul Varadian, another stellar Providence AYFer who was now connected with the Armenian National Olympic Committee.
Through his involvement with the International Bobsled Federation, he figured Armenia had a chance to qualify, provided the right athletes were found. Simultaneously, Varadian became Armenia’s official international representative to the Olympic Movement and proceeded to “arrange” everything at a high level.
“I asked Kenny and Joe to give it a try and they agreed,” said Varadian. “They did everything right to qualify. They donated their own time, money, and travel to make it happen.”
Armenia’s flagbearer (Arsen Haroutoonyan) was disqualified just before the downhill exercise due to a misunderstanding, so Almasian and Topalian were Armenia’s only qualified athletes.
“A special accomplishment was convincing the president of Armenia to allow for electricity so most of the country could see us march,” revealed Varadian. “We convinced the government that the emotional lift at such a dark time was worth it, and they agreed.”
The trailblazers opened new doors for Armenians, who have competed in every summer and winter Olympics since then, and include other AYFers like Sonig Varadian and Dan Janjigian (2002) and Armen Varadian (2006).
These days, Almasian and Topalian are on what they call “a chicken and pilaf tour.” They appeared before their individual community groups and gave a presentation at Camp Haiastan. All their talks have been well received, reminiscent of a hallowed and revered time in the country’s history.
“Being of Armenian heritage, it’s always nice to see your country represented,” said Almasian. “I’d like to think we’ve paved some of that road and given inspiration to others.”
Family and church head Almasian’s list of priorities. He and wife Kim (Jacobs) have been wed 16 years and are parents to 3: Armen, 14, Meline, 11, and Tamar, 9. All are active at St. Gregory Church in North Andover where Joe is vice-president of the trustees and building committee, also handling many a maintenance project that arises.
He coaches his children’s soccer teams, a sport he played at the University of New Hampshire where he also did track. His 111 points is 8th on the all-time AYF Olympic scoring list.
As for Topalian, he, too, continues to stay involved as a member of the AYF Olympic Governing Body. He is married to Medina (Sarafian) and they have 3 children, Alexan, 17, Meran, 14, and Shahan, 10.
He still thinks about 1994 with boundless passion.
“It’s funny that almost 20 years later, most people do not know what we did,” Topalian points out. “The opening ceremonies were by far the most incredible moment to hear ‘Pari Yegagk Haiastan’ (‘Welcome Armenia’). It will never be duplicated again.”