8 February 2018

Nigeria: Winter Olympics, Here We Come!

Photo: BSFNigeria/Instagram
Nigeria's women Bobsled team.

What started out as a fantasy in the heart of just one woman barely two years ago, is today a source of great joy and pride for a nation and its continent at large.

For the first time ever, Nigeria, a country with an average temperature of 77 degrees Fahrenheit in its coldest month--which, by implication has never known winter--will be participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics beginning this Friday, February 9, in South Korea. Thanks to four of its own, Seun Adigun, Akuoma Omeoga, Ngozi Onwumere and Simidele Adeagbo, all in the Diaspora, who are making this happen. The four girls who stormed Nigeria last week remain the rave of the moment.

"The recently-formed Bobsled & Skeleton Federation of Nigeria has undergone the ritual of complete registration for the Winter Olympics. It is because these girls have made it happen that we took this on," disclosed Chief Tunde Popoola, Secretary-General of the Nigeria Olympic Committee, in a telephone interview with Woman's Own.

Popoola who described the girls as an epitome of patriotism, said: "First of all, I see them as patriots and a people with immense love for their country. They have been very courageous and determined in their quest. So, even without them winning, I see them as heroes. If every Nigerian emulates that spirit and displays that kind of courage, determination and patriotism, we will get the Nigeria of our dream."

Coincidentally, all four women share some similarities: they have been professional track and field athletes, and all four have remained strongly connected to their roots even though they were born and bred abroad.

The genesis: From sand to ice

Impressed and inspired by some track-to-bobsled converts, Adigun, a three-time Nigerian National Champion and a two-time African Continental Champion who represented Team Nigeria at the 2012 London Games, resolved to try bobsled for herself in 2015, eventually earning a spot on the U.S. national team same year after only three months of training. She claimed a gold medal in less than one year and soon began to dream of having Nigeria compete in bobsled at the Winter Olympic Games. But there was a glitch for the Chicago-born who currently resides in Texas, and that was the fact that Nigeria neither had an active bobsled programme nor practised bobsled sport in any way. The burden therefore moved her to create a bobsled programme for Nigeria from scratch. With the recruitment of two other female Nigerian-American athletes she knew, Omeoga and Onwumere, Nigeria's first-ever bobsled team was formed in the United States of America.

The 2017 Doctorate degree holder in Chiropractic/Master of Science holder in Exercise and Health Sciences, secured the consent of the Nigerian Government and soon, the Bobsled & Skeleton Federation of Nigeria was established in Nigeria, headed by Chief Solomon Ogba, and then her team finished the five qualifying races necessary to earn a spot in the Olympic bobsled competition.

"This is my gift for my country. Success would be a legacy that would allow others to emulate my path," Adigun whose three-woman bobsled team qualified for the Winter Olympics late last year, said.

Adeagbo retires from retirement

But that dream of seeing others emulate her did not take long to happen. Hearing of Adigun and her team soon forced a Canada-born US-bred woman of Nigerian descent, Adeagbo, to end a nine-year retirement as a professional athlete to become a Winter Olympian in the sports of Skeleton Sled. Adeagbo, a four-time NCAA All American and triple jump record holder for the University of Kentucky, competed in her last major track and field competition in June of 2008. She qualified at Lake Placid in New York on January 11, this year for the 2018 Winter Olympics. The skeleton is a winter sliding sport in which a person rides a small sled, known as a skeleton bobsled or sleigh, down a frozen track while lying face down.

Women greater than men in sports

Continuing in his exclusive interview with Woman's Own, Popoola, who expressed no surprise at the fact that Nigerian women will go down history as the first African athletes to participate at the Winter Olympics, said: "Women have achieved more than men in sports in this country when it comes to medals. Start from athletics and look at football; do you know how many championships those girls have won in Africa? Women are really doing well more than men in sports; except that their lifespan is always very short due to the fact that they have to go home and have children. A man can actually go longer in active sports than a woman; maybe that is why some people think men are better than women in sports."

He regretted that women have over the years been unequally rewarded for their achievements in sports in the country, saying, "I believe everyone should be treated equally irrespective of sex. When you also look at the Agenda 2020, you will see that we are talking about parity and 50/50 in everything we do all over the world. So, whatever reward goes to menfolk for their achievement, should also go to womenfolk."

Uneasy ride

True to Popoola's description of Africa's first Winter Olympians as courageous and determined, it is worthy to state that as much as their feats might appear admirable to everyone, the journey to the Winter Olympics hasn't been all rosy for the foursome.

At the early stage when the trio of Adigun, Omeoga and Onwumere first took up the challenge of making Nigeria part of the snow and ice competition, as recent college graduates with minimal savings, they had no money to fund their training. They thus started a crowdfunding campaign with the slogan, "We proudly welcome winter to Nigeria,"

The crowdfunding campaign received attention from international media outlets and money started rolling in, but not enough to initially afford a new sled and runners, which can cost upwards of $50,000. Instead, they continued practising on a running track with the "Maeflower," and competed with a rented sled.

The Maeflower is a makeshift wooden bobsled built by Adigun.

For Adeagbo too who has been practising on her own with neither a trainer nor coach, the journey to qualifying for the Winter Olympics has also been arduous. Skeleton racing, in the first place, is a difficult sport to prepare for, especially if one lives in Johannesburg where she now lives-- and is always a continent away from any ice track.

Despite not knowing much about the sport of skeleton, Adeagbo did so well at the tryouts organised by the Nigerian Bobsled and Skeleton Federation in Houston, Texas, US, leveraging on everything she already mastered back in her track and field days. The first time she ever touched a skeleton sled was on September 12, 2017, but by January 11, 2018 as mentioned earlier, Adeagbo had successfully scaled through the various qualifying races and won her place in history as one of the first four Nigerians and Africans to ever compete in the Winter Olympics.

Nigeria's continued participation

Speaking on the possibilities of the country's continued participation at the Winter Olympics, Popoola who emphasised that Winter games like the bobsled, can be practised in Nigeria, assured that going forward, the country will ensure it continues to be represented at Winter Olympics.

On whether Adigun, Adeagbo, Omeoga and Onwumere will be supported financially by the Nigerian government, he admitted that the aspect was still being addressed but that certainly, they will be given necessary support. He also assured Woman's Own of the presence of Nigerian delegates at the once in a four-year event.

In his closing counsel to the four Olympians, Popoola said: "They should just go for gold. They already have the drive, energy and determination and nobody can encourage them more.

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