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Nigeria women’s bobsleigh team make breakthrough for Africa on ice

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By Benjamin Hass/The Guardian

Growing up in Nigeria, Kola Adigun never imagined he would be sitting on a freezing mountain in South Korea watching his daughter rush down a rollercoaster of ice at more than 62mph at the Winter Olympics. The result was a distant afterthought. Seun Adigun and Akuoma Omeoga made history on Tuesday, becoming the first to represent an African country in bobsleigh.

“I’m ecstatic,” Kola said. “She’s already accomplished so much by being here. She’s thinking about her heritage and she decided to do it on her own. She’s setting the pace for future Nigerians.”

No African nation has won a winter medal and after the first two heats the pair were last, 3.5sec behind the German leaders in a sport that measures success and defeat in hundredths of a second.

But that was not the victory they were looking for. “I don’t think it’s hit us how impactful this whole process will be in the long run,” Adigun, the pilot, said after the race. “You don’t have to quantify things by just the result of first place, second place or any time. You can actually quantify it by your ability to be selfless, your ability to drive and your ability to be innovative. This was just meant to be.”

That does not mean they were giving up and Adigun noted they had shaved a second off their training times. “That goes to show how dedicated and how resilient we’ve been on this whole journey,” she said.

After the first two heats Germany and the US were jockeying for the medal podium. Great Britain, piloted by Mica McNeill, were sixth and within striking distance of a medal. The winner is determined by the lowest cumulative time over four runs.

Waiting at the finish line was a small group of Nigeria supporters, including Kola and Siky Adigun. Siky was wrapped in a Nigeria flag and too busy fighting the cold to answer a reporter’s questions. During a break after the first heat, she appeared on the big screen and her face lit up with laughter. A second later a video showed how to do exercises to stay warm as the crowd waited for the next heat in -4C.

This lead to hundreds of people moving in unison to ridiculous but practical body motions. More familiar dancing followed with the obligatory playing of Gangnam Style.

The Nigerians were not the only women making history. In the Cool Runnings Redux that almost did not happen, the Jamaica women’s bobsled team came in third from last. Their time was an improvement from their training runs but still left them 1.53sec behind the leading Germans.

The Jamaica pair’s debut was thrown into chaos last week when a coach unexpectedly quit and said she was taking the sled with her. That led to an offer from the brewers Red Stripe to buy a new ride. In the end there was no new sled. The team purchased the same one they had rented from a club in Winterberg, Germany after the beer company provided £35,000, according to Jamaica bobsleigh team spokeswoman Kathleen Pulito.

The bust-up has overshadowed their historic appearance at the Olympics and Carrie Russell and Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian refused to answer questions as Pulito aggressively moved them away from waiting journalists.

It has turned a story of two firsts in women’s bobsled into two almost unrecognisable stories. The Nigeria pair are a grassroots effort and started a crowdfunding campaign that ended up securing the $75,000 needed, with Nigeria’s government following their lead by establishing a bobsleigh federation.

“The Olympic experience is really unique, it’s an experience you can’t really articulate,” said Omeoga, the brakeman. “Nigerians are incredibly proud and I think one of our goals was to present Nigeria in a positive light. It gives people a reason to celebrate something.”

Omeoga was honoured by the comparisons to the film Cool Runnings, which portrayed a fictional account of Jamaica’s bobsleigh debut at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. “That’s the legacy that we hope to have in 30 years to come,” she said.