Africa at the Olympic Winter Games - a brief history

PyeongChang 2018 saw a record eight nations – Eritrea, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa and Togo – from the African continent reach the Olympic Winter Games.

By Ockert De Villiers

Six decades since an African nation made its debut at the Olympic Winter Games, the continent's medal prospects remain an elusive dream.

This is not to say there is no progress. the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 marked a significant milestone in the evolution of African countries' participation at the cold-weather showpiece featuring eight nations from the continent.

Fifteen nations from the continent have featured at the Olympic Winter Games since 1960.

Although this only represents 28 per cent of the 54 countries in Africa, it suggests that the winter gospel is spreading through a continent better known for its warm weather and lack of snow or icy weather conditions.

Alex Heath
Picture by 2006 Getty Images

Where it began

Six decades ago, South Africa became the first African nation to appear at the Olympic Winter Games when a young quartet of figure skaters represented the country in Squaw Valley 1960.

The 11-year-old Marcelle Matthews, the youngest participant in Squaw Valley, and 20-year-old partner Gwyn Jones finished last of the 13 pairs entered for the competition. Marion 'Penny' Sage (16) and the 12-year-old Patricia Eastwood finished 23rd and 25th, respectively, in the women's event.

This was South Africa's last appearance at the winter spectacle in 34 years due to the isolation of apartheid sports teams.

South Africa had been barred from participating in the 1964 Olympic Games over the national Olympic federation's refusal to condemn Apartheid. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) expelled the South African Olympic Committee in 1970 because of the country's policies of racial discrimination. After 21 years of international sports isolation, the ban was lifted, with South Africa returning to the Olympics at Barcelona 1992.

South Africa returned at the Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer 1994, with figure skater Dino Quattrocecere and short track speed skater Cindy Meyer representing the country. The country sent delegations to each subsequent Games – except for Sochi 2014 – including Turin 2006, where Alex Heath became the first African to compete in all five Alpine events.

Adam Lamhamedi 
Picture by 2012 Getty Images

Africa's first winter medal

Morocco became the next African country to feature at the Winter Games, sending a team of five Alpine skiers – Said Housni, Hassan Lahmaoui, Mimoun Ouitot and Mohamed Aomar – to Grenoble 1968.

The North African nation missed the next three Winter Olympic Games before returning to Sarajevo 1984 and sent teams to four editions but struck a blow for winter sports on the continent at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Innsbruck 2012.

Canadian-born Adam Lamhamedi became the first African athlete in history to win a medal at a Winter Olympic event when he won the gold in the Alpine skiing men's Super-G.

"This represents that in life you can do everything, never give up," Lamhamedi told Olympics.com.

"We came from Africa, and we won in Alpine Skiing, so all is possible. I wanted to prove Moroccans can ski well, and I proved it today."

Lamhamedi also represented Morocco at Sochi 2014 and PyeongChang 2018 but could not replicate his success from the inaugural Winter Youth Olympics.

From one to three

Africa celebrated its largest presence nations at the Olympic Winter Games Sarajevo 1984, with Senegal and Egypt joining Morocco. Senegalese Alpine skier Lamine Gueye became the first black African to compete at an Olympic Winter Games. The founder of Senegal's ski federation represented his country two more times.

With each Winter Olympic Games, athletes from Africa pushed the boundaries and broke new ground. Among these pioneers is Philip Boit, who fostered hopes of winning a track medal at the Summer Olympic Games like his uncle Mike Boit did when he won bronze in the 800m at Munich 1972. But instead, he became Kenya's first Olympian at the Winter Games.

They tell me: 'You are a pioneer. You made us think that if Kenya can do it, we can do it too.'

Boit made his debut in Nagano 1998, just two years after experiencing snow for the first time, where he finished in last place, 20 minutes after Norwegian winner Bjorn Daehlie crossed the finish. Daehlie delayed his appearance at the medal ceremony to congratulate Boit on his effort. Their embrace at the finish remains one of the enduring images of the Games.

"My coach had told me about him, and I'd seen him on TV. I couldn't believe that the best cross-country skier in the world was here to congratulate me," Boit told Olympics.com.

Boit continued his warm embrace of the Winter Games featuring at the Salt Lake City 2002 and Turin 2006 and has become an inspiration to other African athletes.

"They all say they ventured into winter sports because they [saw me] in 1998," Boit said. "They tell me: 'You are a pioneer. You made us think that if Kenya can do it, we can do it too.'"

Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong
Picture by 2010 Getty Images

Africa vs Africa

Ghana debuted at the Winter Games in Vancouver 2010, where the Scotland-born Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong competed in the men's slalom.

Nkrumah-Acheampong, nicknamed 'The Snow Leopard', finished 47th, with fellow African Samir Azzimani of Senegal finishing three places ahead of him while Leyti Seck of Morocco did not finish.

Eight years later, compatriot Akwasi Frimpong became the first black Olympian to represent an African country in the skeleton event finishing 30th overall.

Embracing the winter habitat

Algeria, Madagascar, South Africa, Morocco, Senegal, Kenya, Ghana and Togo have featured at more than one Winter Olympics since 1960.

Egypt, Swaziland, Cameroon, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe have made one-time appearances at the Winter Games, with Nigeria and Eritrea making their debuts in PyeongChang 2018.

Nigeria sent an all-women team to PyeongChang 2018, becoming the first African nation to participate in the two-woman bobsleigh at the Games. The two-women bobsleigh team consisted of Seun Adigun, Akuoma Omeoga and Ngozi Onwumere, while Simidele Adeagbo was the first black African to compete in the skeleton.

Adigun, pilot of the two-woman bobsleigh, became the first African to compete at the Olympic Winter and Summer Games. She represented Nigeria in the 100m hurdles at the Olympic Games London 2012.

*Information for this article was sourced from Summer Meets Winter: African Nations Participating at the Winter Olympics by Cobus Rademeyer (2020) - The International Journal of the History of Sport, 37:13, 1252-1273.

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