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Magnificent six – Africa’s gambit at the Beijing Winter Olympics

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Magnificent six – Africa’s gambit at the Beijing Winter Olympics

Once again, world-wide audiences tuning into the Beijing Olympic Games which began on Friday 4th February, will thrill to the astonishing sight of African competitors in an arena that seems totally alien to them. This time, six competitors from five countries will line up in their various disciplines, most of which involve skiing. Meet Africa’s representatives at the 24th Winter Olympic Games.

Six African athletes from five countries (Eritrea, Ghana, Madagascar, Morocco and Nigeria) proudly strode across the arena of Beijing’s National Stadium, (known as the ‘Bird’s Nest’ and which had been used during the 2008 Beijing Summer and Paralympic Games) as the glittering opening ceremony of the 24th Winter Olympic Games unfolded on Friday 4th February.

For decades, there had never been any significant African representation during the Winter Games as the continent has neither the climate, the facilities nor a culture of snow and ice related sports.

This changed dramatically during the 23rd Games held at PyeongChang, South Korea in 2018 when eight African nations took part. This included a four-women team from Nigeria in the bobsleigh event. Although none of the African competitors won any medals, their presence drew considerable curiosity and attention and they made many friends and gained many fans around the world.

This time, none of the competitors are in the sliding events but will take part in skiing related competitions.

Don’t expect our athletes to win any medals – the sample size is too small and the training ecosystem as well as the sporting culture is too underdeveloped at present. It will improve. What is of essence is that these six have managed to break the qualification barrier and are inspiring a huge new generation of young African sports people to venture into spaces new.

Following are brief profiles of the African competitors:

Mialitiana Clerc (Madagascar, Alpine Skiing) 

This will be the 20-year-old’s second Winter Olympics – she competed in the Alpine skiing events, the slalom and giant slalom in PyeongChang 2018 aged 16. She is the only African woman competing in Beijing.

Clerc (pictured above) was born in Ambohitrmanjaka, a small area outside Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo, reports Olympics.com, the Games official website.

She was adopted by a French family at the age of one and began skiing at three. As her skills improved, she enjoyed hurtling down at breakneck speed, the slopes of the mountains around her home in the Haute-Savoie region of the French Alps.

She participated at the World Championships in Are and in the 2019-2020 season, set a series of impressive results in the South American Cup circuit and FIS events in Argentina.

She also competed in the Europa Cup and World Cup races, where she obtained enough points to qualify for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

“I feel lucky because there are not a lot of African women in the world of skiing. I try to enjoy and to be proud of myself and get the best results because I’m here for that…”

Mathieu Neumuller, (Madagascar) Alpine Skiing

For some extraordinary reason, Madagascar, the huge island nation in the Indian Ocean off the Eastern coast of Africa and which knows neither snow nor ice, has now produced three winter Olympic competitors. Mathieu Razanakolona, was the first athlete ever to represent the island nation at the Winter Olympics at Turin 2006 followed by Clerc in 2018 who is now joined by 18-year-old Mathieu Neumuller.

Like Clerc (who he says has been his inspiration), Neumuller also competes in the slalom and the giant slalom. He was born in Mont-de-Marsan, France, and like Clerc, he started skiing at the age of three, coached by his ski-instructor father. He changed his nationality from French to Malagasy.

“The Olympic Games are a stage in skiing that is exceptional, and [the thought of it] makes my heart beat very fast. A little stress but a lot of joy,” Neumuller told Olympics.com.

He has skied in several competitions including three World Cup events in France. He says he hopes to finish in the top 30 of his discipline.

Samuel Ikpefan, Nigeria, Cross-country Skiing

Samuel Ikpefan was born and raised in Annemasse in the French Alps. He showed early promise in speed skiing, winning sprint events and nursing ambitions of becoming a top national performer.

He wanted to represent his father’s country, Nigeria in international events and as his abilities grew in skiing, he felt confident that he could do well in global competitions.

But first he had to get clearance from the Nigerian authorities to represent the country and to do so, he had to travel to the country and demonstrate his skills using roller skis in a stadium. He was cleared to represent Nigeria and among other events, he participated in the World Cup in Falun, Sweden in 2021. Athletic ability runs in the family – his brother Daniel is a French international rugby player.

Yassine Aouich, Morocco, Alpine skiing

Yassine Aouich becomes the eighth competitor from Morocco to participate at the Winter Olympics. He was raised in Ifrane which is in the Atlas Mountains where conditions favour snow-oriented sports. Morocco in fact has several ski resorts and many youngsters have become excellent skiers.

Aouich achieved a major ambition when he qualified to compete in the 2020-2021 World championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo and an FIS race in Kolasin, Montenegro.

Carlos Maeder, Ghana, Alpine Skiing, giant slalom

Ghanaian Carlos Maede becomes the third Ghanaian to qualify for the Winter Olympic Games following in the snow-tracks of Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, the ‘snow leopard’ who competed at Vancouver 2010 and Akwasi Frimpong in 2018 in South Korea.

The 43 year old born in Cape Coast, Ghana is probably the oldest competitor of these Games. Like many other Africans who have taken up winter sports, he was adopted and raised in Europe.

“Since my mother was alone and could not feed me, she had to give me up for adoption,” he explains on his blogsite.“I was adopted by a Swiss family and grew up in the heart of Switzerland. Thanks to my Swiss parents, who maintained contact with my mother, I have remained in touch with Ghanaian culture all my life. I travel as much as possible to Cape Coast to visit my big family there.”

“I was better at football, but skiing was always a part of me. I wanted to qualify for PyeongChang but I didn’t know that the qualification window is two years, so I missed the first year,” he said in an interview with Olympics.com.

“For me, there is more to sports than just winning. I want to set a good example and show young people in Switzerland and Ghana that you can do anything with the necessary will and effort – ain’t no mountain high enough!”

Shannon Abeda, Eritrea, Alpine Skiing

For Shannon-Ogbnai Abeda, Beijing will be his second Winter Games after the 2018 PyeongChang 2018 event. He grew up in Canada after his parents fled their native Eritrea to escape the series of wars in that country. He took had an early start showing promise as an ice-skater when he was still only three years old.

He says he wanted to be an ice-hockey player but his parents vetoed the idea as they felt the sport was too dangerous. But with the fire of ambition to be an international competitor burning (he drew a picture of himself standing on the Olympics podium when he was seven or eight years old) he made it to the 2012 Youth Olympic Games, representing Eritrea.

After PyeongChang, he decided to give up on skiing but had a change of heart and went back to the sport. He managed to make the quota for the Games and posted: “It’s too surreal and it hasn’t sunk yet… I have officially qualified for my second Olympic Games. About two months [ago], I was close to throwing in the towel. “I want to share my story more and use my voice to inspire a future generation of winter Olympians from Eritrea and the diaspora.”

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