The Winter Olympics is not popular in Nigeria for obvious reason – the country does not have a winter season. However, a Nigerian, Simide Adeagbo, has qualified for the 2018 Winter Olympics slated for South Korea next month. How did she do it? Kunle Adewale answers the question
L ast year, she was just a race away from qualifying for the 2018 Winter Olympics and penultimate week she got her ticket to be a part of the event in Pyeongchang, South Korea, after completing her fifth qualifying race in Lake Placid, New York to become the first African skeleton athlete to qualify for the Winter Olympics even when her country doesn’t have winter.
Her participation in the Winter Olympics means Nigeria will be represented in two games at the event – that’s including bobsled in which Nigerian team of three women will be making their own history.
While Adeagbo was making global history in New York, she also achieved a personal best and had the fastest push start of the day – finishing the race in third place. She really crushed it and there’s definitely no stopping her now!
“I lived in Nigeria until I was about six-years-old and then grew up between the U.S. and Canada. Now, I currently live in Johannesburg, South Africa, and have been there for the last four and a half years. Growing up, I’ve always been an athlete, loved sports, been passionate about sports. I played a lot of different sports, but I settled in track and field. That’s where I really excelled. At the University of Kentucky, I did track and field and was named a four-time All-American—pursuing it after college as well. I just nearly missed making the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team in the event of triple jump back in 2008. After that, I kind of just moved on with life, moved to South Africa, and was kind of in a different space in life,” she said.
On how she got involved with skeleton, she said: “I got to know about the bobsled team around the end of 2016. I think it was actually the OkayAfrica article that I saw online and was really inspired by it. I thought what the ladies were doing was a really awesome thing in a winter sport, which has never been done before for Nigeria and also for the continent. I immediately wanted to be a part of it, so I reached out and kept in touch with them.
“In August of this year, there was a tryout in Houston, Texas, so I made the long trip there for the weekend and tried out. I was invited back to a camp that was in September. I went to camp and got to know skeleton, which was not the original plan because I knew more about bobsled, and there’s been a history of track and field athletes that make the transition from track and field to bobsled. That’s where I got to know about skeleton and I thought that sport was also equally interesting to me because I could still use my talents to serve my country. I’ve been learning the sport ever since and now I’m just one race away.”
Asked how her family members and friends reacted to this transition into skeleton, she said they have been really supportive. “I have a great community of friends and family that support me, and are behind me 100 per cent, and are encouraging me and cheering me on. I think the initial reaction is first of all, ‘What the heck is skeleton?’ You know? A lot of people are not familiar with the sport. Some of them are a bit concerned because people think that it looks really scary. And then, I just let them know, ‘Hey, no. It actually can be fun,’ she said.
However, the sport is something that she’s still learning every day. “I think even when you become an expert, you’re always going to be learning. If you get to a stage where you’re not learning, then you should probably move on. For me, being new to the sport, the learning curve has been really steep, and I’ve tried to just take it one day at a time. I have some coaches who have been helping me, and each day, I try to see how I can improve and get better and better. I’ve done a lot in a short period of time already doing four races, and I’ve been at three different tracks. I’m challenging myself to really see what I can do,” she noted.
Adeagbo would need expert help with footwear. “Footwear is a really, really important component of the sport, because in skeleton, you use your feet to steer the sled,” she said. She contacted Tobie Hatfield, a senior director of athlete innovation at Nike, to ask about her options. Hatifeld, who had designed skeleton spikes for Nike athletes in the past said that he’d like to design a shoe for her. “We had to focus on keeping the athlete warm and dry in very cold and wet conditions. The biggest attribute of the Nike Zoom Slider is to make it very aerodynamic. With speeds around 80 mph, it is imperative that we give the shoes a nice slip-stream through the air, thus why we cover up the laces with a faring and make the heel as round as possible as that is the leading edge down the hill as she slides,” Hatfield explained.
Skeleton is a single rider sport, where an athlete rides a skeleton sled down a frozen track at high speeds while lying face down. Just like Nigeria’s bobsled team, this is the 36-year-old’s first go at the sport, but she’s determined to use this experience to inspire young Africans to excel at whatever they do.
Why are Our Brands Fixated on “International” Coloration of Local Sports Events?
I am yet to meet a brand handler in this country who does not think there has to be an international element to a domestic sports event before it would appeal to fans. It is a supposition not based on any proper research findings, but one these business executives swear by. The result is that virtually every well sponsored event in Nigeria today, even by government, has an international quotient to it. Take the Lagos Governor’s Cup in Tennis, the Okpekpe Race by the Edo State government, the Obudu Mountain race by the Cross River State government as well as the likes of the Lagos Marathon – they all court international athletes. What many have failed to realize however, is that without domestic athletes having a great chance of competing for the top prizes, these events will never be able to attract any major following, let alone sustain and grow interest
F ans follow stars, the more local the better. This has been proven in Nigeria a number of times, but since we are a people with little faith in proper research, we are none the wiser. Take the entertainment industry for example and see the strides made by the local stars in music, movie and comedy. Not only do Nigerian fans adore these local stars, their popularity has spread from Nigeria to the rest of Africa, and even beyond. Some guy recently tried to advance the argument that the popularity of our entertainment stars exploded because of their links to international stars. However we all know the Wizkids and Olamides could not just woken up one morning in Lagos and proceeded to strike deals with the Drakes and Kanye Wests of the world. They were already household names in Nigeria otherwise they would have held no attraction for the international stars.
Let us for a moment even consider what many brand and sports handlers consider “international” stars by looking at tennis and the Lagos Governor’s Cup. That tournament has been played for about 17 years and barring one Nigerian victory over a decade ago, the trend has largely been Nigerians crashing out in the opening rounds. Still, apart from the feel-goodness of having a few international players, the tournament has not managed a following from fans. Despite the millions of dollars that have been spent so far, no one really knows who the champions are, no one really cares. Think about it, who do you know that won the last Lagos Marathon, or the Okpekpe Race or the Obudu Mountain Race? Who cares?
There is a simple explanation for this. The winners may be international by country of origin but they are not international stars. International stars are the likes of Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic, the Williams sisters etc, and those will not be coming to compete in Nigeria at this time. So the athletes that come here, simply blast away our poorly-funded local stars, and disappear from whence they came with our dollars. No one invites them to Nigerian red carpet events, no one knows or cares about who they date or who their families are, no one knows or cares what controversies they get into, etc. Were they Nigerian stars winning such relatively large purses for instance, the fans would closely follow their careers and lives as they do the guys in the entertainment industry. That is what results in fandom.
By focusing on these C-rated international stars who no one knows anything about except after a Google search, money that should go into sponsoring domestic tournaments and investing in the careers of local athletes is basically ‘dashed’ away. If these monies are spent on domestic tournaments, it will lead to the creation of multiple local stars who then pack the following to drive what would be an explosion of investments in the sporting industry. This way, as the most populous country in Africa and with solid economic potential, overseas sports interests will be attracted to investing in Nigerian sports and creating real value here, rather than the other way round.
Domestic sports may not have caught on at this time, but do not forget that it was once the same for our music, movies and comedy. The difference when you think about it is that entertainment stars found a way to become highly paid and as such lived the lifestyles that appealed to fans. It is my belief that once this model is applied to sports, it would revolutionise the industry and even the Nigerian economy.
In every progressive society domestic sports dwarfs entertainment and other attractions because of its power to influence society in a positive way. A sporting country is a healthy and productive one. Sports stars are just the right role models for society. They teach us the importance of being physically and mentally sound, and the discipline and personal exertion it takes to succeed at whatever we do in life. Local sports stars can inspire this in us, not some nameless, faceless guys who fly in for a few days, collect our dollars, and disappear.
We need more of that money to invest in our local industry and stars. Nigeria needs that.