DAEGWALLYEONG, South Korea — At the finish line of the race, at the start of a possible revolution for African winter sports, two women representing Nigeria untucked themselves from their bobsled and removed their helmets. One sported Nigerian green tresses. Both waved to a small cluster of fans.
The song “I’m Every Woman” filled the cold air at the Olympic Sliding Centre, and as everyone swayed to the music, it just felt right. It felt good, too, watching history stretch out in a sport that, 16 years ago, saw Vonetta Flowers become the first black person to win a Winter Olympics gold medal.
If you want to celebrate Olympic diversity, this is a good place to be.
On Tuesday night, as the Nigerians and a female Jamaican team debuted, it was most poignant that they weren’t alone. There were black women throughout the 20-team field, including on both of the United States’ entries, Canada, Britain and Germany. Critics of representation often argue that the Olympics try too hard to promote inclusion and downplay the significance when these social pioneers pull up the rear in competition. It’s a narrow viewpoint, but in this case, there’s no denying the impact a racially diverse field is having on the event.
Through the first two heats of the event, you see black women contributing to sleds at the top of the standings, in the middle and at the bottom. You see the long-term impact of Flowers’s 2002 triumph and of the Jamaican men’s team from 30 years ago. You see a new wave with a mission to bring bobsledding to Africa. You see the concept of Black Girl Magic bursting at every turn.
“One of the things that we all agree on is that representation does matter,” said Akuoma Omeoga, the brakeman for Nigeria. “It absolutely does matter. And the diversity within the black community, black women in general, we have Nigerians, we have Jamaicans, we have African Americans and on and on. It’s definitely been a huge family, and we’ve all been a huge support.
“And we’re glad that we could honestly be here at this moment and contribute to the sport of bobsled. And it just goes to show you that, whoever’s watching TV, if you’re reading a book or whatever, that you can do what you want, especially if you see our faces. If we inspire you to do something, then that’s absolutely all we ask for.”
The Nigerian team is a trio of American track athletes with family ties to Nigeria. Omeoga and pilot Seun Adigun competed Tuesday. Ngozi Onwumere is the team’s other member. After two heats, they occupy last place, trailing front-runner Germany by 3.5 seconds, which is a considerable deficit in a sport often decided by hundredths of a second. But 18 months ago, a Nigerian bobsled team was just a hope. Now, the women are wearing the green and white flag on their Under Armour uniforms and lighting up the night with their grins.
“You have these outlandish kind of ideas, and then all of a sudden, you see them slowly but surely manifest themselves into reality,” Adigun said.
Adigun competed for Nigeria in the 100-meter hurdles at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Later, she watched Aja Evans and other friends switch from track to bobsled, and she was intrigued. She first trained with the United States, but she wanted a different challenge. She wanted to found a Nigerian bobsled program. She persuaded Omeoga and Onwumere to join her in creating the Bobsled and Skeleton Federation of Nigeria.
Since then, they have qualified for the Olympics, raised $75,000 through crowdfunding and agreed to deals with sponsors such as Under Armour, Visa and Beats by Dre. They have danced on the “Ellen” show. Their debut became one of the most anticipated events at these Olympics. But despite the popularity, they’re still the humble team that began training on a homemade sled.
Two years ago, Adigun went to a Houston hardware store and built the wooden bobsled to use as a developmental vehicle for beginner bobsledders. So, how do you build a bobsled when you don’t even know how to bobsled?
“Just kind of walk through a hardware store and think that this works and that works and this wood’s long enough and that one is, too, and let’s hammer it all together,” Adigun said.
She named the training sled The Maeflower to honor her late sister, nicknamed Mae-Mae, who died in 2009 after a car accident. Her full name was Amezee, and Adigun called her Miss Amazing because she endured sickle cell anemia with grace.
Now the team has a much sleeker bobsled suitable for an icy track. The women named it The Maeflower 2 and inscribed it on the side.
The Maeflower 2 won’t get the Nigerians on the medal stand, but they knew that was unrealistic. Their goals are simpler, for now: Improve and inspire. During Tuesday’s heats, they were proud that they had trimmed more than a second off their training times from earlier in the week. They also had their best push time of the week. They compete with the motto: “All we have to give is everything that we’ve got.” They just want to max out and make sure that they’re not both the first and the last African country to compete in an Olympic bobsled event.
“I think right now we’re so honored and humbled to be in the position that we are, to be able to show people that impossible is nothing, and you don’t have to quantify things by just the result of first place, second place or any time,” Adigun said. “You can actually quantify it by your ability to be selfless, your ability to drive and to be innovative.”
For Elana Meyers Taylor, a veteran bobsledder who has recruited many athletes from other sports, this was a special night. Meyers Taylor is African American, but she’s focused on the entire picture. She wants the four-man bobsled to become an Olympic sport like it is on the men’s side. She wants the most diverse selection of bobsledders possible, and she also wants top-level athletes to fall for the sport. So while she’s in position to win a gold medal during this competition, she still caught the significance of Tuesday night, when Nigeria lived its dream, the Jamaican women replicated the men’s achievement from 30 years ago, and black women from all over the field owned the night.
“I love this sport, and I want people to have the opportunities that I have,” Meyers Taylor said. “I want the kid in the inner city to know that she can be a bobsledder one day, and I want the kid in the middle of Africa to know that she can be a bobsledder one day. So the more that we can go out there and grow the sport, the better.”
The growth was evident on this night. The PyeongChang Games have been the Diverse Olympics in spirit and action, and this happened to be an event for women of color to take the stage. They shined, every woman, with all their magic, Miss Amazings everywhere.
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