Olympic Flame Still Burns with Almasian

WESTFORD, Mass.—Twenty years after becoming the first athlete to compete for Armenia, the Olympic flame continues to burn brightly for Joe Almasian.

Joe Almasian watches the Winter Olympics’ opening ceremony with the two jackets he wore as Armenia’s first athlete 20 years ago.
Joe Almasian watches the Winter Olympics’ opening ceremony with the two jackets he wore as Armenia’s first athlete 20 years ago.

It’s never been extinguished, ever since he and Kenny Topalian represented the Independent Republic of Armenia in a rented bobsled while funding their own expenses.

The fact they finished well out of the running made no difference. Millions of Armenians throughout the world watched them parade into Lillehammer led by the Armenian tricolor. The patriotism alone was worth a gold medal.

“An experience like that never leaves you,” said Almasian. “You live that dream all your life.”

The year was 1994. Armenia was 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.

The two became instant household names. Arman Serebrakian, an alpine skier for Armenia at the Sochi games, lists Almasian and Topalian as his two role models for “breaking the ice” as Armenia’s first Olympians.

“They’re my heroes,” he said during an interview.

These days, Almasian is making his share of speaking engagements, rekindling the past. He’s been the subject of a full-page spread in the Lowell Sun and has accepted invitations to speak at schools. It’s been somewhat of a celebrity status for the ageless athlete, who continues playing competitive soccer and serving his Armenian church and community with unbridled devotion.

During a speaking engagement at St. Gregory Church, Rev. Stephan Baljian recalled the time his dad, Rev. Archpriest Antranig Baljian, took him to Connecticut for a surprise encounter with Almasian.

“I was only 14 at the time,” he said. “Here’s my father dragging me to Hartford to hear some speaker. I balked but went anyway. It turned out to be Joe Almasian talking about his Olympic experiences and I was never more entranced in all my life. Now I’m his pastor. It’s a sense of pride and admiration that has transpired to this very day.”

Since joining the church with his wife Kim and three children, Almasian has played an active role. He’s a trustee; co-chairman of the Building Committee, which has raised $1.5 million for the renovation project; and is part of the maintenance crew.

He helps keep the church mobile and functioning while Kim sings in the choir, and offspring Armen, Meline, and Tamar regularly attend Sunday School.

There’s a tinge of humor in his delivery.

“People always ask me how we finished and I tell them there were no gold medals, but we were national champs,” he smiles.

“I was able to fulfill the obligation of promoting my homeland,” added the one-time Camp Haiastan attendee and Framingham/Providence AYFer.

Like his mom Lucy (Oulohojian), Almasian is among the top Olympic scorers in AYF history, did soccer and track at the University of New Hampshire, and is an Eagle Scout.

“Being of Armenian heritage, it’s always nice to see your country represented,” he said. “I’d like to think we paved some of that road and gave inspiration to others.”

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Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
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4 Comments

  1. Very proud indeed !!
    Every Armenian feels overwhelmed and emotional when we see our beautful flag making its way down the opening ceremonies, weather our Athlets win or not, we actually have won the Gold!!! God bless our Olympians and God bless our Country.

  2. Joe
    My sister sent me this email. As an olympian (bobsled ) i am proud of you and the fact that you represented our homeland with pride! ! Don’t every forget the fact that you are an Olympian and that is better than any gold metal! !

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