Although 2014 Winter Olympic Games are still dominated by countries with snow and established training programs, countries with tropical climates are gaining greater prominence on Winter Olympic Games schedules. This year, 15 warm weather countries are participating at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, including the three African nations of Morocco, Togo and Zimbabwe.
Ski and Safari
Generally, a reason why African nations are not regular participants is because of the weather – there is little snow in Africa. Africa is branded as a safari – not skiing- destination although the mountains of Algeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda are snow peaked. There has also been occasional snowfall at lower altitudes in Egypt, Tunisia, South Africa and Algeria in recent years – perhaps indicative of a new epoch of African weather. Last year, countries such as Zimbabwe were at the brink of receiving their first snowfall. In general, more and more African nations are experiencing colder than normal temperatures extreme temperatures due to climate change – one can argue that cold weather is globalizing!
However, consistent snowfall that is conducive to supporting consistent snow based sporting activities on the continent are limited to Algeria, Lesotho, Morocco and South Africa. All of these nations are host to skiing resorts – with Morocco hosting a permanent national ski team.Therefore, at minimum, participation from these countries should be expected but has been intermittent for various reasons including politics and economics.
The Geopolitics of Africa at the Winter Olympic Games
The Winter Olympic Games are a site where global geopolitics and economics are evident. Typically, rich nations with large training facilities and money compete against poorer nations with significantly fewer resources. This has led to a situation where rich nations continue to dominate the competitions. At the Summer Olympic games, the gap between the rich and poor has somewhat decreased. In spite of an increasingly globalized world however, the old guard still dominates at the winter Olympics. Cold weather nations, which are dominated by tiny and old northern hemisphere countries, continue to win the most medals. No country from a warm weather climate has ever received a medal at this game in the history of participation from warm weather nations.
The first Winter Olympics where held in 1924. The first warm weather nation to compete was Mexico in 1928. During this time, almost all of Africa was still under colonial rule therefore, African nations did not get a chance to compete until the late 1960s – after the wave of independence. Although one might have expected Africa’s representation at past games to be limited to the snow producing nations, African participation reaches far beyond the snow these nations. Africa’s inaugural participation in the Winter Olympic Games began in 1984 with the participation of Senegal. Skier Lamine Guèye went to down in history as the first Black African to compete in the games. Years earlier, at the 1976 winter paralympic games is where Africa first participated at any international winter games. Uganda was represented by athlete, Tofiri Kibuuka, at these games and the subsequent paralympic games in 1980.
Since then, we have seen participation from countries such as Algeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa, and Swaziland. At the Sochi 2014 games, newcomers Zimbabwe and Togo will join add to the list of African nations to be represented at the games.
The Game Changer – Globalization
Part of the increase in participation from African nations can be explained by the increase in GDP of African nations. This means that some nations are in a better position to fund their athletes. Furthermore, with the advent of social media, fundraising is no longer limited to national borders. Crowd funding through sites like crowdit.com has become a popular alternative way of raising funds – this year, the Jamaican bobsledding team raised the money that it needed to compete this way. Due to increase in transportation, there is also greater opportunity for African athletes to train in foreign countries where they are able to train in the top facilities in the world.
Another explanation for this increase is because more athletes are getting support from their governments. One of Togo’s athletes, Mathilde-Amivi Petitjean’s Olmypic journey began with a post on Togolese Ski Federation’s Facebook account that was picked up by them. African governments in countries such as Togo understand that having ones country represented provides national prestige and have began recruiting them. This has been facilitated by changing migration and citizenship laws that allow both athletes and countries greater flexibility. Africa is increasingly being represented by athletes with dual citizenship or African athletes that are living abroad. This trend can be seen in this year’s contender who are navigating this global world. This year’s athletes, as an example are indicative of this trend:
Africa’s Winter Olympic Hopefuls
Adam Lamhamedi –Alpine skier Lamhamedi was born in Montreal, Canada. He will be competing for Morocco. He became the first African to win a medal at the Youth Winter Olympic event and is rumored to be Africa’s closest chance at earning medal this year.
Kenza Tazi – Alpine skier Tazi was born in Boston in the United States. She currently studies and trains in France but will be competing in the slalom and giant slalom events for Morocco.
Mathilde-Amivi Petitjean – Petitjean is a dual citizen of France and Togo, but she will be competing for Togo in cross country.
Alessia Afi Dipol – Skier Dipol was born in Pieve Di Cadore Italy. She has recently competed for India in competitions. As a naturalized Togolese, she will be competing for Togo at these games. She will be taking part in the slalom and giant slalom events.
Luke Steyn – Skier Steyn was born in Zimbabwe. He lives and trains in the USA and Europe and will be competing for Zimbabwe. He will be Zimbabwe’s first entry into the Olympic game. He will compete in the slalom and giant slalom disciplines.
Nearly all the players representing Africa this year were born abroad. Steyn will be the only African born athlete representing the continent this year. Two ‘global’ African athletes that qualified but did not make this year’s games are Algeria’s Mehdi Selim Khlefi and South Africa’s Sive Speelman. Khlefi is a cross country skier with French and Algerian dual citizenship. Speelman is from the Eastern Cape in South Africa but trains in Europe.
Although ranked at 2290 in the world, he was offered a chance to compete by the International Olympic committee. South Africa’s Olympic committee (SASCOC) denied him the opportunity to compete because he did not meet their minimum qualifications. Speelman, who comes from a disadvantaged background received much support from the South African public who thought SASCOCs killed his Olympic dream. Morocco has made similar decisions in the past after sending low-ranked athletes in 1992 that they felt did not represent them well as competitors.
Africa’s Winter Olympic Future
There is little doubt that the changes in the world are impacting Africa’s participation at the Winter Olympics. However, the winter games remains a space dominated by richer nations. In spite of the presence of snow on the continent coupled with the history of participation, the involvement of warm weather countries at winter games still continues to garner attention because it is still rare. The Winter Olympic Games, which are often dubbed as ‘international’ have yet to be truly representative of the entire world. Yes, strides have been made but Africans will continue to be a novelty at these games for some time.