Here is a reminder of the human side of the games, the side we love to hear about and support but one that often gets lost in the hunt for glory – especially in the media.
As I watched the opening ceremony two weeks ago and noted the countries, I thought stood out during the parade of nations one stayed in my mind, Nigeria.
The ladies who marched into the stadium looked beautiful in their culturally inspired winter uniforms, which caught my attention, but it was the throw-away comment of a commentator that has stayed with me.
As the “team” marched in the commentator noted that the sole athlete attending the games was not marching as he was in isolation due to COVID-19 and it was unclear if he’d be able to compete.
That was it. No further comment or even reference to his name or sport.
The next day, when I thought I’d look up his story I found it almost impossible! I found lots of hits on the beautiful uniforms, but those stories didn’t even comment on the fact that the country’s sole athlete wasn’t there.
Nigeria is one of just 5 African nations competing, having made their Winter Olympic debut in 2018 with four female entrants in the bobsleigh and skeleton competition’s. This was to be the first time a male would compete for Nigeria at the Winter Olympics.
After a lot of digging (and having to sharpen some of my foreign language skills) I found that this missing athlete is Samuel Ikpefan who is actually French born, representing Nigeria in an ancestral capacity, and will compete in the cross-country skiing.
The flag bearer in his absence was Seun Adigun, the team’s doctor who made Olympic history back in 2018 when she was part of the continents first bobsleigh team.
This in itself is one of the great stories of the Olympic Games but isn't one often told.
Of the 206 recognised IOC nations just 84 are competing at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Why? Well I’d think it was pretty obvious. Unlike the summer sports, many winter sports are not easily accessible and due to the equipment needed many are not accessible to those without financial support.
Having said that, some of the most unlikely nations are represented at these Olympic Games, including five from Africa. This is their stories.
Five may seem like a great turn out for a winter games but back in 2018 there were 8 nations representing the African continent at the Winter Olympics across 4 disciplines. Now, four years later, just 5 African nations are representing the continent and they are competing across just two disciplines: Alpine and cross-country skiing.
As previously mentioned, Nigeria is one of those countries with an overseas-born competitor who is now an official citizen of the country owing to his Father’s Nigerian nationality. He competed in the cross-country skiing, finishing 73rd in the Men’s sprint free however he failed to finish in the 15km event.
Representing Ghana is alpine skier, Carols Mader. He was born in Ghana but adopted by Swiss parents where he has lived for most of his life. He elected to represent his native Ghana at these games in the Men’s giant slalom. Unfortunately, he failed to finish his first run and didn’t proceed into the medal round.
Mader followed in the steps of Ghana’s first Winter Olympian, who was also an alpine skier and debuted Ghana at the Winter Games in 2010. The only other time Ghana has been represented at the Winter Games was in 2018 in the skeleton.
Similar to Ghana’s Mader, Morocco’s sole competitor Yassine Aouich participated in the Men’s giant slalom event and also did not finish his first run. Unlike most other African nations, Morocco has a long history of alpine competition at the Winter games. Aouich is from the Moroccan region of Meknes-Tafilalet which is apparently known for its Swiss-like villages and is near a ski resort.
Likely, for this reason, Morocco has made the most appearances of any African nation at a Winter Games, attending in 1968, 1984, 1988, 1992, 2010, 2014, 2018 and now 2022. The countries largest delegation was in 1992 with 12 athletes competing across alpine and cross-country skiing events. When the country debuted in 1968 they became just the second African nation to take part in a Winter Games, the first being South Africa in 1960.
Making his return to the Winter Games is the Eritrean entrant, Shannon Abeda. Back in 2018 he became the first Winter Olympic athlete to represent Eritrea. Though he was born in Canada his parents were refugees who fled Eritrea in the 1980s during the war with neighbouring Ethiopia. He also competed in the giant slalom, and he finished 39th.
The only African nation with multiple athletes attending the games is Madagascar and it is also the only African nation with a female representative in 2022.
Mialitiana Clerc competed in the women’s slalom and women’s giant slalom, finishing 43rd and 41st respectively. This wasn’t her first Winter Games, making her debut back in 2018 and at the time becoming Madagascar’s youngest ever Olympic flag bearer as she was just 16 years old.
Born in Madagascar she was adopted by a French family where she learned her love of skiing.
The other Madagascan competitor is Mathieu Neumuller who changed his nationality in 2021 from his native France to Madagascar. He entered the Men’s Giant Slalom and slalom, where he finished 41st in the later and failed to finish in the giant event.
Madagascar is one of the nations to have attended both the Summer and Winter Games without winning any medals. The nation made their winter debut in 2006 with an alpine skier, paving the way for Clerc and Neumuller at these games.
The Other African Nations to have competed at the Winter Games
It may seem unlikely that these athletes should come to represent Africa at the Winter Olympics, but it isn’t new for African nations to be represented at the Winter Olympics. Of the 54 countries included in the African continent, at least 39 are yet to make a Winter Olympic debut. That leaves just 15 who have made appearances on the winter stage.
In addition to the five represented at these games (Nigeria, Ghana, Eritrea, Morroco and Madagascar) the other ten nations of Africa to show up in Winter Olympic records are:
Algeria (appearances in 1992, 2006, 2010; biggest contingent was 1992 with 4 athletes competing in the alpine events)
Cameroon (just one appearance in 2002 with an athlete in cross-country skiing)
Egypt (one appearance in 1984 with an alpine skier)
Ethiopia (Two appearances 2006 and 2010 with one athlete, a cross-country skier)
Kenya (appearances in 1998, 2002, 2006 with one cross-country skier and 2018 with an alpine skier)
Senegal (alpine skier’s represented Senegal in 1984, 1992, 1994, 2006 and 2010. Lamine Gueye, who competed for Senegal at the 1984 games became the first black African to take part in a Winter Games).
South Africa (Before being excluded from competition due to the countries apartheid policies, the country was represented in figure skating with four athletes at the 1960 games, this was their largest winter Olympic delegation ever. When they participated in these games they became the first African nation to take part in a Winter Games. Since they were re-admitted to the IOC they have competed in a number of sports at every games since 1994, except for 2014 and the current 2022 Games. Since 1994 their largest delegation has been just three athletes).
Swaziland (now Eswatini, made one appearance in 1992 with one alpine skier. This country is one of the few to have competed at both the Summer and Winter Games without a medal at either event).
Togo (represented at the 2014 and 2018 games in alpine skiing and cross country skiing)
Zimbabwe (one appearance in 2014 with an alpine skier)
How many of the nations noted above were represented in each appearance by foreign born athletes? Well, that is a discussion for another day but nonetheless it is good to see less-known or under-represented nations getting their name on the world stage.
What will happen in four years time? Will more African nations make their debut on the Winter stage? Only time will tell!
To read more about the Winter Olympics and all sorts of fun facts head over to this page: Winter Olympic Fun Facts, Trivia and History
"Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games, Athlete Profiles", [Numerous Accessed], www.olympic.com
Olympic Statistics from all past games, www.olympics.com/en
Aishwarya Kumar, "Why African Athletes are absent from Beijing Sledding Events", (8 February 2022) ESPN.com/Olympics; https://www.espn.com/olympics/story/_/id/33217113/olympics-2022-why-african-athletes-absent-beijing-sledding-events
"Winter Olympics 2022: Africans on their way to compete for 2022 Beijing Olympics", (4 February 2022), BBC News Pidgin, https://www.bbc.com/pidgin/sport-60259012