Five rings, one dream: African athletes' winding road to PyeongChang Winter Games
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When the 2018 Winter Olympics kick off this week in PyeongChang, true to modern Games founder Pierre de Coubertin’s five iconic interlinked rings, every continent will have athletes to cheer for – including eight plucky African contingents.
While representatives from relative Winter Olympic’ veterans Morocco and South Africa are poised for competition in South Korea, Eritrean and Nigerian fans will enjoy their nations’ first-ever Winter Games appearances. Even tiny tropical Togo is sending a two-woman team, a skiing pair of Olympic sophomores seasoned at Sochi in 2014.
Some of the African athletes competing in these Games practise sports virtually unheard of in the nations they will represent. Many were born and/or raised in more traditional wintersport climes abroad and chose their colours for these Games, some switching flags to compete, some rediscovering roots. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look.
Born and raised in Alberta, Canada, Shannon-Ogbnai Abeda, 21, will be Eritrea’s first ever Winter Olympian, representing a nation his parents fled as refugees in the 1980s during its war of independence.
Based in Calgary, a stone’s throw from the Rocky Mountains, the computer science student decided to compete for Eritrea in 2011. "I have grown up here [in Canada] with a lot of friends who are Canadian but I also have that connection inside to who I am as an Eritrean," Abeda told the CBC, the Canadian public broadcaster. "I've been very humbled by the response and support I've received, especially from the Eritrean-Canadian community. They look up to me and I never imagined myself being in that position," he added. Look for Abeda in the slalom and giant slalom competitions in South Korea.
Skeleton racer Akwasi Frimpong was born in Ghana and spent much of his childhood there, until he moved to join his mother in the Netherlands when he was eight. As a teenager, he was drawn to running, becoming the Dutch national junior 200m champion at 15. But Frimpong’s circumstances in the Netherlands as a young undocumented immigrant made travel abroad risky, compromising his ability to compete as a sprinter.
Later, Frimpong's Olympics dreams would collapse for the first time with an Achilles injury, just when he looked close to qualifying for the Dutch athletics team ahead of London 2012. Frimpong was approached after that setback to join the Dutch bobsleigh team and did, but again narrowly missed out on a berth at Sochi 2014. He switched disciplines once more, to skeleton – a revelation. "It was like going through a canyon on a motorcycle with no speed limit; it was like dancing with the ice,” he told Olympics.org of discovering the spectacular sport. “I set myself the goal of becoming the first African to win a medal in winter Olympic history.” As a skeleton racer, Frimpong has also switched flags, finally competing for his native Ghana in PyeongChang at the age of 31.
These are 40-year-old Samir Azzimani’s second Winter Games after his Vancouver 2010 performance for the kingdom in slalom and giant slalom. But Moroccan Alpine skiing’s so-called “Couscous Rocket” has since switched disciplines for cross-country skiing. Born and raised in Paris’s suburbs, the Franco-Moroccan Azzimani discovered skiing during a rough stretch in his childhood when, at five-and-a-half, he was put into state care when his mother was unable to look after Azzimani and each of his younger brothers. During his hard-fought glide to PyeongChang, the Moroccan Olympic veteran made headlines with an epic five-week, 1,700-km journey on roller-skis, skiing Morocco from north to south.
While Azzimani represented Morocco alone in Vancouver, he has a teammate in PyeongChang. Moroccan-Canadian Adam Lamhamedi, a talented 22-year-old Alpine skier, is also returning for a second Winter Games after Sochi 2014. The Quebec City-born Lamhamedi, whose father is Moroccan, had already made Winter Olympic history as a 17-year-old, winning gold in the Men’s Super G at the Winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck in 2012 to become the first-ever African to medal at a Winter Olympics event.
Nineteen-year-old Alpine skier Sabrina Wanjiku Simader was born in Kilifi, Kenya before moving to Austria at three. There, her Austrian stepfather, a ski-lift operator, encouraged her to take up his nation’s national pastime. Simader will become just the second Kenyan to compete in the Winter Olympics after three-time Olympic cross-country skier Philip Boit, and the first Kenyan woman to participate.
Born in Ambohitrmanjaka, Madagascar, Mialitiana Clerc was adopted by a French family as a one-year-old and moved to the Alpine Haute-Savoie department, where she would first attempt skiing as a toddler and began competing at nine. Now a teenager – she just turned 16 in November – Clerc becomes the first ever Malagasy woman to compete in the Winter Olympics. Her stated Olympic goal is to medal in four years’ time at the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.
Nigeria’s bobsleighing women have been the talk of these Games, with a blizzard of ink comparing them to Calgary 1988’s unlikely Jamaican bob pioneers, an exploit Hollywood immortalized in Cool Runnings (1993). But Nigerian-Americans Seun Adigun, Ngozi Onwumere, and Akuoma Omeoga, Nigeria’s two-women bob trio, are writing their own story in PyeongChang. Chicago-born driver Adigun, a London 2012 Summer Olympic hurdler, and her brakewomen, Dallas-born Onwumere and Minnesota-born Omeoga, are the first-ever Olympic bobsleigh team to compete for any African country.
Skeleton racer Simidele Adeagbo was born in Toronto to Nigerian parents and lived in Nigeria as a child. Inspired by the exploits of Nigeria’s bobsleighing pioneers, the Johannesburg-based Adeagbo tried out for a place on the country’s first-ever Winter Olympics squad in skeleton. The 36-year-old ran her first-ever skeleton race only three months ago but, like her bobsledding Nigeria teammates, has drawn on a wealth of track and field experience to succeed on ice.
South Africa’s sole representative in PyeongChang is Alpine skier Connor Wilson, a 21-year-old from Johannesburg. A freshman in Veterinary Sciences at the University of Vermont, Wilson was one of two South Africans to qualify for the single entry allocated to South Africa by the Olympic Committee in the Alpine skiing competition. Wilson was eventually selected over countryman Sive Speelman based on his higher International Ski Federation (FIS) rankings, having placed 54th in giant slalom and 71st in slalom on FIS’s table at the end of the 2017 season.
Skier Connor Wilson will represent SA at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea in February. Wilson, 21, who competes for the SA Active Club, will compete in the Alpine Skiing slalom/giant slalom event. @AfriNewsAgency pic.twitter.com/MhcvoBR5TNHerman Gibbs (@Herman_Gibbs) February 1, 2018
Cross-country skier Mathilde-Amivi Petitjean was born in Kpalimé, Togo, in 1994 before moving to France as a toddler. She grew up the French Alps, in Haute-Savoie, and began skiing as a seven-year-old. She initially represented France in competition as a teenager, but Togo came calling. “It was also my way to renew with my African roots. Skiing is my way to express myself and I wanted to do it for Togo,” she told Jeune Afrique of her carefully considered decision to race for the tropical African nation of her birth. Petitjean joined Togo’s ski federation in 2013 and was fast-tracked into the Olympic spotlight at Sochi in 2014, where she finished 66th. Now based in Quebec, the Olympic veteran, who turns 24 during these Games, is this time eyeing a spot in the finals in PyeongChang. “My mother has always spoken to us in the country’s language and we eat dishes from over there at home,” she told Jeune Afrique. “I feel just as Togolese as I do French.”
Alpine skier Alessia Afi Dipol, the Italian-born daughter of ski instructors who lives and trains in Italy, meanwhile, has more tenuous family ties to Togo. But she will also be wearing the nation’s colours for a second time after Sochi.
"My father has a factory in Togo that specialises in sports clothes. He has a feeling for the nation, and I have an opportunity to run for Togo, and I am proud of this,” Afi Dipol has said. “Even though I was born in Italy and I live and train in Italy, now I will always stay with Togo, which is like a new family that has adopted me."