PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Nigeria was winning the Olympic women’s bobsled race.
That sentence is 100 percent accurate – albeit with some massive reservations. The Nigerians were the second sled down the track in the opening heat of the women’s competition at the Pyeongchang Olympics, and over the first few turns of the course they actually were going along faster than the Korean sled that preceded them.
So yes, they were winning.
“I know!” pilot Seun Adigun shrieked afterward, overjoyed by the notion.
Of course, after that quick flirtation with the lead, their sled bounced off the roof and commenced the inevitable freefall to last place.
Briefly leading, finishing last, none of that was the point Tuesday night. Simply getting to the Olympics has been victory enough for this Nigerian team, three women who live in the U.S. and have backgrounds in other sports before deciding to try sliding – and now, officially, are the first bobsled to represent Africa on the sport’s biggest stage.
“There were some good things,” Adigun said. “One of the biggest things that we’re trying to do from the beginning is show people how important that it is to be selfless and what it means to also do something bigger than yourself. And I think that that right there has been the objective and what people have been able to receive from our time here at the Olympics.”
The final two runs are Wednesday night. For the Nigerian sled to not finish last, they’ll need someone ahead of them to make a massive mistake.
Again, that’s irrelevant.
They have been rock stars at these Olympics, for all the right reasons. Athletes of all sorts – male, female, white, black – have wanted hugs and selfies, which is all the vindication the Nigerians have needed to show that this foray was worthwhile.
“It’s great to see that,” U.S. bobsledder and 2014 bronze medalist Aja Evans said of the added diversity Nigeria’s presence brings to a sliding world that has seen plenty of athletes of color make serious splashes over the last couple decades. “The world’s finally catching up and realizing the potential all across the board. It’s amazing to be a part of that.”
There’s what is known as a “mixed zone” for reporter-athlete interaction at the Olympics, a space where athletes parade past electronic and print media for a series of interviews after their events. When the Nigerians were done Tuesday night, the overwhelming majority of the media contingent left with them – long before the leaders of the race showed up for their interviews.
“When people talk about sports right now, they’re talking about bobsled,” Nigeria brakeman Aduoma Omeoga said.
Most, it seems, are talking about Nigerian bobsled.
And that simply blows Adigun’s expectations away.
“We still are trying to cope with it,” Adigun said. “We like to be more low-key, but we know that when we came into this whole process it was to bring awareness. If people are excited about that, we can’t now revert back and get into our shell.”
There’s a long way to go before they’re competitive. Every sled that qualified for the Olympics could take six official training runs in Pyeongchang over the last few days, and Nigeria beat none of them in those training runs.
But the improvement could be seen even over the course of those six minutes or so on the ice. Nigeria was 3.07 seconds behind the leader in the first training run. By the sixth and final training run, the margin between first and last was down to 1.69 seconds.
That’s significant improvement, and that’s been the point of giving teams like Nigeria the chance to qualify and compete at the Olympics. There’s already been a Nigerian women’s skeleton athlete and a men’s skeleton racer from Ghana on this same track. None of them had much chance of winning, but having them in the games may plant the seeds for something good to happen years from now.
“This is such a learning curve for us being here,” Adigun said. “We have to start somewhere.”