No athlete from a tropical nation has ever won an Olympic Winter Games medal – who could be first?

The race to be the first athlete from a tropical country to win a Winter Olympic medal for their nation is hotting up but is anyone in the frame ahead of Beijing 2022?

By Jo Gunston
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

The hashtag used by Ghanaian skeleton slider Akwasi Frimpong on his social media posts as he attempts to qualify for his second Olympic Winter Games is #hopeofabillion. If you’re going to be under pressure to perform well, you may as well go all in, right?

Part of Frimpong’s remit is to showcase the sport to a whole continent and becoming the first athlete of African descent to qualify for an Olympic Winter Games in skeleton is quite the start. Frimpong achieved the accolade when he qualified for PyeongChang 2018, coming 30th out of 30. Nevertheless, the first barrier had been broken.

But if he, or any other of the increasing numbers of athletes from tropical nations could actually win a medal, well that could light the touch paper for interest in winter sports for those from warmer climes. But is he, or any other athlete from a tropical nation, anywhere near the podium at the Olympic Winter Games? Olympics.com takes a look.

History in the making

The first warm weather nation – but not tropical – to compete at an Olympic Winter Games was Mexico in 1928. The four-man bobsleigh team finished an impressive eleventh out of 23 entrants, however, Mexico was unable to build on this success, not returning to the Winter Games until Sarajevo 1984.

The first truly tropical nation to take part in an Olympic Winter Games – those countries that lie entirely or predominantly within the tropical latitudes according to the Köppen climate classification system – was the Philippines.

Ben Nanasca and Juan Cipriano both competed in Alpine skiing at the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. Nanasca placed 42nd in the giant slalom, the only finish the pair managed between them in the combined four races in which they took part. Nevertheless, the tropical nations had arrived.

Costa Rica participated at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York, again in Alpine skiing courtesy of Arturo Kinch, who went on to compete at three more Winter Games, including Torino 2006 at age 49. By then he’d switched to cross-country skiing, finishing 96th in the 15km discipline, ahead of only Prawat Nagvajara, from another tropical nation, Thailand.

Calgary 1988 also attracted the likes of Fiji, Guam, Guatemala and Puerto Rico but it was the Jamaica bobsleigh team who drew the most attention. Their story of the underdogs from a tropical isle competing in a winter Olympic sport loosely inspired the 1993 Hollywood movie, Cool Runnings. The feel-good story provided huge reach to potential athletes from warmer climates to really start looking further afield than the summer sports in which they had mostly participated until then.

One of those was British-Jamaican international DJ, Benjamin Alexander who only took up skiing at 32 while on a trip to DJ in a mountain chalet in Canada. A seed was planted after going to PyeongChang 2018 as a spectator then watching Cool Runnings on the two-hour journey to a friend’s place where he was staying. Could he become Jamaica’s first-ever Alpine skier? Alexander wanted to find out, switching from a hedonistic whirlwind DJ existence to the monastic life of an elite athlete.

The 39-year-old is currently in the process of trying to qualify for Beijing 2022, with Dudley Stokes, one of the four original Jamaican bobsledders acting as a mentor. Alexander – who admits he’d never have started this journey had it not been for watching Cool Runnings – will find out by 16 January 2022 if he has added to the Jamaican winter sports story but a medal is not on the cards at this stage for him. Qualification and representation will be the win.

Benjamin Alexander
Picture by Stephen Shelesky

Not just making up the numbers

Taking part is the first hurdle but even back in 1988 Nelson Christian Stokes, Dudley’s brother and fellow participant in Jamaica’s first four-man bob team, wasn’t there just to take part, he wanted a medal.

“I considered myself a winner and wanted to continue to win, wanted to continue to be excellent, so that's where my entire focus was,” Nelson told Olympics.com in October when describing his thought process leading up to Calgary 1988. His belief was based on a successful athletics career, that winning feeling was something he wanted to continue in this new sport and, he says, he wasn’t afraid to fail to get there.

“I and my teammates, my brother Douglas Stokes, Devon Harris, Michael White... went to the Olympics to win the race. The fact that you think that I'm going to fail, you deal with that. That is what we did in ’88, and you know what? We crashed, it was chaos, it blew up. But we came back six years later in Lillehammer, Norway and we placed 14th in the Olympic Games overall, including beating the United States and all kind of big sleds.

"We came back in 2002 and set an Olympic start record; 2018 we had our first female team in the Olympics. So what have I learnt in life and what I have tried to pass on to athletes and personnel – it's okay to fail at first, it's okay to go through the chaos.”

Stokes has always been of the mind that he doesn’t want the next generation of athletes to start from scratch but to build on his success, and the Jamaica winter sports team is evolving but funding issues continue to thwart the country’s progress, as it does with many tropical nations.

Ahead of Beijing 2022, Stokes, who is also a fintech entrepreneur, has turned to the digital art space with an NFT drop and also traditional fundraising, to even buy the sleds needed for February’s Games. The $194,000 (£145,100) target would be used to pay for two monobobs – a new discipline for women only in People’s Republic of China, and one four-man bobsleigh, an event in which they last competed at Nagano 1998, Stokes’ last Games, so it would come full circle. “This is what we need to win,” says Stokes.

Forward thinking

From Torino 2006 to PyeongChang 2018 the likes of Ethiopia, Madagascar, the Cayman Islands, Togo, Tonga, Ecuador and Eritrea, have added their names to the 41 tropical nations that have now competed at an Olympic Winter Games gaining invaluable experience they are passing on to future generations. Some of those who are passing on their knowledge include:

Shiva Keshavan was the first Indian to compete in luge at an Olympic Winter Games, the youngest to qualify for the event at Sochi 2014, at just 16 years old. Keshavan, who hails from Manali, which has a sub-tropical climate, has represented India at six Olympic games and is now spending time recruiting new Indian winter sport athletes. Around 200 Indian children have attended his luge training camps.

Tongan athlete Pita Taufatofua competes in both summer and winter Olympic Games in taekwondo and cross-country skiing. He came in 114th out of 118 skiers in cross country at Pyeongchang 2018 and drew more attention to nations from warmer climes taking part by adorning a traditional Tongan taʻovala wrapped around his waist, to the opening ceremony in the Republic of Korea. The juxtaposition of the topless Tongan with ski jacket-clad athletes and volunteers surrounding him served to highlight the increasing participation of those from sunnier nations.

Pita Taufatofua flag opening ceremony
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

In 2016, Seun Adigun founded the Nigerian bobsled team, going on to compete at the 2018 Winter Olympics in the two-women event, alongside Ngozi Onwumere and Akuoma Omeoga, becoming the first-ever African bobsled team to qualify for the Olympics. Simidele Adeagbo, meanwhile, became the first female athlete representing an African country to compete in skeleton, finishing 20th out of 20 sleds. They are now developing winter sports in Nigeria, with the hope of increased participation in the Winter Olympics from African nations.

Philip Boit was a middle-distance runner with no experience of skiing when he was approached to try for an Olympic Winter Games place in Nagano 1998. The Kenyan finished last in the 10km cross-country race but the winner and Nordic ski legend Bjorn Daehlie, impressed the African’s tenacity in tricky conditions, waited 20 minutes for Boit to cross the line before giving him a hug. Still friends to this day, Boit even named his son after the his new friend – Daehlie Boit was born the week after the race.

Athletes from Cameroon, Ghana, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Togo all went on to debut at subsequent editions of the Winter Games and, says Boit, “They all say they ventured into winter sports because they [saw me] in 1998. They tell me: ‘You are a pioneer. You made us think that if Kenya can do it, we can do it too.’”

No doubt the same will be said when the first athlete from a tropical nation wins their first medal too.

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