BEIJING — (AP) — Victory, of sorts, for Eritrea’s only winter Olympian — one of six athletes competing for African countries at the Games in China — came before his feat of surviving. two races in blizzard conditions on a dangerous course aptly named The Ice River.
Before flying to China for her Olympic ski race in the mountains northwest of Beijing, Shannon-Ogbnai Abeda heard of a cross-country skier living in Germany who was so inspired by the pioneer of Abeda that he is aiming to qualify for their East African nation at the next Winter Games in 2026.
“It’s because of all the interviews I’ve done and, you know, coming and going again,” said Abeda, who also raced at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, after finishing 39th in giant slalom that only 46 of 87 starters completed in Sunday’s snowstorm.
“He now wants to carry the torch,” Abeda said.
So imagine: how many more eager young hopefuls could emerge from the African continent of 1.3 billion people and the African diaspora spread across the globe, if they only had more than a handful of Olympic trailblazers in mind, showing that the barriers of racial prejudice, inequality and geography are surmountable?
This question is more relevant than ever at the Beijing Games, as African representation has shrunk since a record eight African nations, fielding twice as many athletes as in Beijing, competed in 2018. Eritrea , Ghana, Morocco, Madagascar and Nigeria are back; Kenya, South Africa and Togo are not.
Skiing – downhill and cross-country – was the only sport for which Africans were skilled. There was only one African: Mialitiana Clerc, born in Madagascar and adopted by a French couple when she was a baby, is now a double Olympian. After breaking through in Pyeongchang, she raced in Beijing 41st out of 80 runners in the giant slalom and 43rd out of 88 in the slalom.
Elsewhere, in the ice rinks, snow parks and the sliding track, there was no African representation. African sliders have been thwarted by less inclusive qualifying rules, despite making history in Pyeongchang. There, Nigeria fielded Africa’s first-ever bobsleigh team; Simidele Adeagbo, also Nigerian, became the first African and black woman in skeleton; and Ghana’s Akwasi Frimpong led the way for the men.
Adeagbo, frustrated at being sidelined for Beijing, says the fall in African representation requires an Olympic response. The five rings of the movement are meant to symbolize the five inhabited continents. But in Beijing, Africa’s presence seems barely larger than a dot. Adeagbo notes that the Summer Olympics “see a rainbow of nations represented” and wonders why this is less the case in the winter, given that “sport is supposed to be democratic for everyone”.
“Is it the European Olympics or is it an Olympics that reflects the world?” she asked in a video interview with The Associated Press. .”
“We are talking about the Olympic Games; we shouldn’t have a complete exclusion,” Adeagbo said. “Given the resources and support, Africans are just as capable.
Looking ahead to 2026, the International Olympic Committee has said it will review the rules and qualification quotas, which African Olympians want to use to give them more space. But there are no signs of IOC dismay over Africa’s retreat to Beijing.
“There are five continents represented here,” said James Macleod, head of an IOC sponsorship program that helped fund athletes during their trips to Beijing.
The IOC granted individual scholarships to 429 athletes. Europe, with 295 beneficiaries, took the lion’s share. Africa, with 16, got the least. Five African winners qualified for Beijing. The Americas (50), Asia (47) and Oceania (21) got the rest. The IOC says its aim is to make the Winter Games more competitive, rather than “artificially” more universal.
African recipients say the funding was vital to them. They argue that increased funding for African winter athletes would see more qualifications. Abeda – born in Canada, where his parents resettled in the 1990s, fleeing war in Eritrea – said $1,500 a month in IOC funding has helped cover living costs, training, training and equipment. He wants private companies to “step up” too.
“In Pyeongchang, it was really great to see more Africans,” he said. “At these Games, there are very few. So I’m disappointed.
Adeagbo said his bobsled alone cost $40,000.
“I don’t think a sport should be for the privileged and those are things we need to have real conversations about,” she said. “Sport isn’t supposed to be just for one group.”
The IOC says COVID-19-related disruptions that have upended athlete preparation could partly explain Africa’s slump. Frimpong’s hopes of qualifying for Ghana again in skeleton were dashed by positive coronaviruses which forced him to drop out of races ahead of Beijing. South Africa would also likely have sent athletes had it not been for the pandemic, says Cobus Rademeyer, head of social science at South Africa’s Sol Plaatje University, who wrote about the story. of Africa at the Winter Games.
“The pandemic has definitely broken the momentum,” Rademeyer told the AP by email. He expects Africa to bounce back for 2026, writing, “Although some people see the participation of African athletes in the Winter Olympics as ‘glory chasers’, it has been inspirational for many others.
Skier Carlos Maeder, born in Ghana and adopted by Swiss parents, says he was amazed by a flood of messages from supportive Ghanaians. Also the recipient of an IOC scholarship, he competed in the giant slalom in the snow, but jumped in the first run.
At 43, he would like to find other Ghanaians to follow in his footsteps and “will ski as long as he has to find”.
“Hopefully these games will be a door opener,” he said. “It’s not just about the African continent: we are spread all over the world. It is therefore important that our continent is represented.
Follow Parisian AP journalist John Leicester on Twitter at https://twitter.com/johnleicester. More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/winter-games
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.