The Olympics involve as much political and social symbolism as athletics, and that attention is good for Nigeria this year. The most populous nation in Africa makes its winter games debut this week—and its four athletes are all women. They call themselves the Ice Blazers.
Three Nigerian women, Seun Odigun, Akuoma Omeoga, Ngozi Onwumere, make up the bobsled team. They are the first Africans to ever qualify for the bobsled competition. In a lesser known singles event, Simidele Adeagbo is Africa’s first female skeleton athlete, as well as the first Black female athlete in skeleton.
They are all former track and field stars with dual Nigerian-American citizenship, some with summer Olympic experience, who planted the seeds for their journey on their own. Odigun started a GoFundMe page to raise money for the coaching and travel of a bobsled team and handcrafted her training sled. Her teammates took hiatus from their careers to join her.
The women represent not just a huge leap forward for female athletics but send a strong message of diasporic power. They wear their Nigerian identity on their sleeves by speaking indigenous languages with their parents, blasting Nigerian dance music, and one has even died her hair green to match the shade of the Nigerian flag. They are global forces in every sense—by participating in European sports of affluence, by being dual passport holders, by choosing to represent a developing country, and by doing so at an Olympics held in one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the world.
There are 12 athletes from 8 African countries participating in the Pyeongchang Games this year. Ecuador, Eritrea, Malaysia, and Singapore are also sending athletes to the Winter Olympics for the first time.
It is unfortunate these Nigerian women are not getting the best games possible. The Olympics have had a disappointing turn out this year, and not just from low ticket sales due to concerns about North Korea. Based on my experience attending, the official website did not accept credit cards, public transportation to the event was extremely limited, and infrastructure was shockingly underdeveloped (the sliding center ran out of hot food and drinks, and there was no standing room in the tiny spectator shelters with heat). Seats for the luge were nearly empty.
These women have overcome so many obstacles and represent so much to Africa, though, that certainly some low tickets sales will soon be forgotten as they blaze the ice, and social expectations.