By Kyra Fox
African athletes are making history at the 2018 Winter Olympics, which begin this week.
At the games in Pyeongchang, both Nigeria and Eritrea will make their Winter Olympic debuts. Ghana will send its first ever Skeleton athlete.
African female athletes are breaking the ice: Nigeria’s female bobsled team will be the first to represent Africa in the bobsled competition. Together with Simidele Adeagbo, Africa’s first female Skeleton athlete, they will make up Nigeria’s first Winter Olympic team. Meanwhile, Kenya’s Sabrina Simader will become the country’s first Olympic Alpine Skier.
We took a look at some of the athletes putting their countries on the world stage this month.
Nigeria: A year of firsts
Three former track athletes are trading in their spikes for sleds at this year’s Olympics. Seun Adigun, Akuoma Omeoga and Ngozi Onwumere of Nigeria are making history as the first Africans to compete in the bobsled competition.
With sponsors ranging from Beats by Dre to Visa, the team has attracted global attention, but the behind-the-scenes work is not so glamorous. The team had to create Nigeria’s first national bobsled federation from scratch. Nigeria’s weather forces them to use a wooden sled created by Adigun and dubbed “The Maeflower” to practice off the ice.
Yet the team refuses to let these challenges stand in their way. “We want to be able to be something that people can really be able to be proud of,” said Adigun.
The iconic bobsled team will be joined by Simidele Adeagbo as the first Nigerians to ever compete in the Winter Olympics.
Adeagbo, a Skeleton athlete, can add her spot on Nigeria’s first Olympic team to her list of records broken. The former NCAA All-American will also be the first African female athlete to compete in the Olympic Skeleton, as well as the first Black female athlete to compete in the sport at the Olympics.
South Africa: Two athletes vie to represent the country
In a decision that had the entire country on the edge of its seat, the South Africa Sports Confederation (SASCOC) and Olympic Committee named 21-year-old Connor Wilson the country’s representative in the Alpine skiing competition.
Many South Africans who hoped to see the country’s first black Olympic skier were disappointed that Sive Speelman missed the cut. Though both athletes qualified, Wilson’s higher International Ski Federation ratings snagged him the one Alpine skiing spot allocated to the country by the International Olympic Committee.
Ghana: Representing his homeland, and the continent
After missing the cut for the games in years past, Akwasi Frimpong will become the second person to represent Ghana in the Winter Olympics. Raised in Ghana, the athlete moved to the Netherlands at age eight and competed in both bobsledding and track and field in the Netherlands and the United States. For the first time, Frimpong will compete in the Skeleton at the 2018 games.
“I feel this timing is just perfect because now I not only get to the Winter Olympics, but thanks to God I also get to represent Ghana and the entire continent of Africa, which is a huge responsibility,” Frimpong said.
“I want my example to motivate kids in Ghana and elsewhere in an attempt to get them out of their comfort zone to show them that it can be done because I did it.”
Kenya: Diversifying its Olympic footprint
Nineteen-year-old Sabrina Simader will hit the slopes this month as Kenya’s first Olympic Alpine skier, and the country’s second Winter Olympics athlete in history.
Simader, who born in Kenya and raised in Austria, said to Reuters after her second World Cup race, “Because I’m a Kenyan, that makes me exotic and some people think I can’t ski well.” But as her successes pile up, she says that she is beginning to “win over” the international skiing community.
Paul Tergat, the Kenya Olympic Committee president, commented, “Simader’s zeal to compete in PyeongChang is a wake-up call to Kenyans to diversify to additional Olympic sports other than track and field.”
Eritrea: Bringing the Horn of Africa into the limelight
Canadian-born Alpine skier Shannon-Ogbani Abeda, whose parents fled the Eritrean War of Independence in the 1980s, is eager to represent his roots at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“Eritrea was a country that fought for independence for almost 30 years,” he told CBC News. “They’re very proud of me for being able to carry on my roots and my heritage.”
Though he is focused on the Olympics, he says that after the competition he would like to coach the Eritrean community. “My main goal is to put Eritrea on the map,” he said.
Africans at the Paralympics
Though much media attention has focused on the Olympic games in February, keep an eye out for African athletes at the 2018 Paralympic games, which will begin on March 13 in Dubai.
Paralympic athletes have not yet been selected, but potential favorites include Charl du Toit of South Africa, Ntando Mahlangu of South Africa, and Mahdi Afri of Morocco.
Sprinter Charl du Toit, hailing from Pretoria, already boasts an impressive Paralympic record. He won two golds at the World Championships in London in 2017 and one at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. In 2016, South African Sports Awards named him Sportsman of the Year with an Impairment.
At fifteen years old, South Africa’s Ntando Mahlangu dominates the world track stage. After winning four gold medals at the first World Junior Championships in 2017, the young Paralympian is a favorite for this year’s games.
Mahdi Afri of Morocco won the 200m and 400m races at the London 2017 world championships, and clinched a gold and silver at Rio 2016. Known as one of Africa’s best Para athletes, Afri will likely be a force to be reckoned with at this year’s Paralympic games.