Nigerians met their Winter Olympic bobsled team for the first time just one week before Friday's the start of the Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Thirty years after a Jamaican squad became a global sensation, the trio of Nigerian women Seun Adigun, Ngozi Onwumere and Akuoma Omeoga will become the first African bobsleigh team in Winter Olympic history.
Born to Nigerian parents they all live in the United States but travelled to Lagos for a rousing Nigerian send-off on Friday night at a corporate reception held in their honour at a luxury hotel.
Their qualification late last year for the February 9-25 Games has since attracted massive interest around the world and won the previously crowd-funded athletes a string of big-name sponsors.
Many people in Africa’s most populous nation said they were unaware the country even had a bobsled team. Some were keen to play up their supposed ignorance for comic effect.
“So, you are the driver?” the comedian compering the event said, pointing at Adigun.
“And you are the brake . . . appliers,” he ventured eagerly to Onwumere and Omeoga, as if searching for the correct terminology. “And what is that thing you are pushing? A wheelbarrow?”
“First question,” he asked the women’s teammate Simi Adeagbo, who will also make history by becoming the first African to compete in the skeleton. “What is that?”
Despite being new to hurtling down an icy track at 150 kilometres (93 miles) per hour, Nigerians – noted more for their passion for football – are happy to cheer the team on.
On the hotel’s rooftop bar, with temperatures still in the mid-30s Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) by late evening, guests drank champagne and ate “small chop” (finger food). Dance music distorted through a skyscraper of loud-speakers. Most people arrived late. Everyone blamed bad traffic.
But Nigeria’s pioneering winter sports team were made to feel at home with fairy lights and Christmas snowflake decorations twinkling overhead, above white plastic sheeting stuck to the floor with gaffer tape.
Dry ice and cotton wool
To complete the frozen idyll, a bored-looking teenager wearing a single red rubber glove operated a dry ice machine that sent damp-smelling fog curling over snow drifts of cotton wool.
Nearby, air conditioning units were set to the equivalent of 16 degrees – a good 10 degrees below the temperature that normally makes some in tropical Nigeria don a hat and coat.
The team took the gentle ribbing with good humour, batting back comparisons to Jamaica’s participation in the 1988 Games in Calgary, Canada, that led to the 1993 Hollywood film Cool Runnings.
Adigun is the driving force behind the team’s Olympic dream, from working with the US team to learn the sport to hammering and nailing together a makeshift wooden sled in Houston and gathering fellow sprinters to make a run at history.
She was a 100m hurdler for Nigeria at the 2012 London Summer Olympics. Omeoga was a sprinter for the University of Minnesota and Onwumere was a double sprint medalist at the 2015 African Games.
“I basically got into the sport of bobsledding in 2015 after a little bit of a hiatus from athletics,” the US magazine People recently.
“I also learned that Nigeria had never had any Winter Olympians . . . and then to cap it off I learned the continent of Africa had never been represented, man or woman, by any bobsleigh team.
“So I was like: ‘OK, this is obviously something that’s going to hang over my head if I don’t step in and try and do something about it.”
At the reception, questions about the basics of the sport – from timings to the number of people participating – were met with polite responses.
But in a country where self-sufficiency is a matter of life and death for most people, the women’s hard work and commitment to achieving their goals got the loudest cheer.