Olympians are making Black History in Pyeongchang

Athletes of colour challenge perceptions of what it looks like to be a Winter Olympian

By Wendy-Ann Clarke, CBC Sports

More and more athletes of colour from around the globe are launching out on the ice and snow, and in doing so are challenging perceptions of what it looks like to be a winter athlete.

With the movie Black Panther — the first black superhero movie from a major studio — hitting theatres right in time for Black History Month and the Winter Olympics, discourse around the importance of representation have again taken centre stage.

For Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian of Jamaica, the chance to be a part of her nation's first female bobsleigh team along with teammate Carrie Russell means the opportunity to speak out on diversifying the sport.

Bobsleigh has developed into one of the most visibly diverse of the winter sports, with several competitors of African, African-American and Afro-Caribbean descent competing for various nations around the world. Due to the speed required for the push start, track and field has become a natural pipeline into the sport with many top level sprinters having made the transition.

Summer Olympic hurdler Phylicia George is one of a handful of current and former sprinters who will be sliding at these Games for Canada. George, who is of Grenadian heritage, only started bobsleigh six months ago and makes her Winter Olympic debut on Tuesday in Pyeongchang, pushing two-time Olympic champion Kaillie Humphries. The team is a favourite for the podium. 

These Games boast the largest representation of athletes from African nations in any Winter Olympics, including sub-Saharan nations like Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Eritrea — the latter two of which are making their Winter Olympic debut.

Seun Adigun of Nigeria who competed in the 100-metre dash at the 2012 Summer Games, started a fundraiser to put together the nation's first Olympic bobsleigh team. She recruited two other former sprinters, Ngozi Onwumere and Akuoma Omeoga,  and now they are making history for the continent of Africa as the first ever competitors in the event. Their accomplishment has drawn comparisons to the first Jamaican men's team famously depicted in the 1993 movie Cool Runnings.

Recently, the past collided with the present in Pyeongchang when Adigun had the opportunity to meet driver Dudley Stokes of the original Jamaican team who competed at the 1988 Games in Calgary.  

History is also being made in the death-defying sport of skeleton with Ghana's Akwasi Frimpong, Jamaica's Anthony Watson and Nigeria's Simidele Adeagbo each becoming the first athlete from their respective nations to compete in the sport. Although none reached the podium, the enthusiasm and inspiration these pioneers brought to their fans is more than golden.

Maame Biney became the first African-American woman to qualify for the Olympics in speed skating after winning the 500 at the Team U.S.A. trials in December. Although her journey in South Korea has not earned her a medal, at just 18-years-old, the Ghanaian born speedster is being touted as the future of her sport.  

Eritrean alpine skier Shannon Ogbani Abeda marched into the stadium during the opening ceremony accompanied by a delegation of supporters including his mother, father, and coach. Born and raised in Alberta, Abeda's parents fled the East African nation over 30 years ago as refugees.

Not only has Abeda made history as the country's first winter Olympian but the family told CBC in December, they hope his presence at these Games will encourage other first- and second-generation immigrants to get involved in winter sports.