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Of Black Panther and Nigeria’s winter heroines

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Nigeria’s Simidele Adeagbo celebrates after finishing the women’s skeleton heat 4 final run during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games, at the Olympic Sliding Centre on February 17, 2018 in Pyeongchang. / AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN


Last Friday I went to the cinema to see the greatly hyped blockbuster movie, Black Panther. For someone who never read any of the comics, I had no expectations but to see what all the fuss was about. I was impressed and enthralled by the production and the story that I have spent the past several days reading up reviews as well as discovering, via social media and blogs, how, many African, African-American and Afro-Brazilian communities have received the movie. One major thread that runs through the commentary and analysis is the representation that many black people have found in the story and the cast. The strength and beauty of the African woman have also risen to the forefront of conversations. I have spent the last few days telling friends and family members to go see the movie.

Earlier in the day, Simidele Adeagbo made history as the first person from Nigeria to compete at the Winter Olympic Games, Pyeongchang 2018. She took her place in history when she competed in the Women’s Skeleton event at the Alpensia Sliding Centre. Even though she finished bottom of the pile, for an athlete that picked up the sport about five months ago, the fact that she made it to the final and beat her personal best in the process was worthy of acclaim. She was cheered on by locals and a selection of Nigerians who waved the green and white with so much joy, it left me ‘green’ with pride.

In 2016, when I went to study in the Olympics city of Sochi, I realised the huge following that winter sports have. During my study, I visited the Sanki Sliding Centre in Rzhanaya Polyana, venue for bobsled, skeleton and luge during the 2014 Games. In the icy chill, we watched young Russian athletes slide down the tracks like discharged bullets. They were ultrafast and made the eye dizzy. It never occurred to me that I would see the Nigerian flag hoisted at the next Winter Games. People like us are not expected to participate at the Winter Olympics. We don’t have the climate to support the sport, neither can our governments afford the expensive facilities that can enable it. But a revolution was taking place.

When Seun Adigun turned to bobsled in 2016, she set the ball rolling to make history for her country. After recruiting Akuoma Omeoga and Ngozi Onwumere to join her as brakemen in Houston, Texas, their task to qualify for Pyeongchang 2018 began in earnest. They started a fundraiser and caught the attention of many admirers. Their story has been written and told across several platforms that we now see them truly as pioneers. The fact that Adeagbo’s inability to get into the bobsled team made her turn to skeleton in order to achieve her Winter Olympics dream also makes for inspirational reading.

On Wednesday, Adigun safely piloted the Maeflower 2, their beautiful sled painted in Nigerian colours, down the Alpensia ice track as they finished in 20th spot behind the Jamaican women’s team that also made its debut. With a clenched fist raised inside the sled, Adigun and brakeman Onwumere celebrated the finish of their fourth and final race and their place in history as the first women from Africa to participate in the bobsled. It was a moment that could be missed if we concentrated on their position and not on the uniqueness of the feat. It was markedly historical when you realise that several Nigerian flags waved in the crowd as they pulled up to the end.

Now that we have seen that opportunities can exist for Nigerians in winter sports, what are we going to do about it? Many might say that we have not completely explored the opportunities in the summer sports where we have traditionally participated. Where do we go from here? What happens to the next generation of Nigerian athletes looking to participate in the Winter Olympics, how can they find their feet? I have been told that Adigun, who is the technical director of the Bobsled and Skeleton Federation of Nigeria, and the rest of the team, will have roadshows in the country to show how the sport works to potential athletes. This is a good way of preserving the legacy of Pyeongchang.

Many people never expected an all-black cast to break the box office like Black Panther has done over the past one week of its release. Suddenly, the movie has created a paradigm shift and will continue to engender interest in Africa. Neither did anyone expect to see a bobsled team or skeleton athlete from Nigeria participate at the Winter Olympics. But these heroines have changed the narrative and put our flag up there among the rest of the world. What do we do next?


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