Padraig Belton   22 February 2018

Nigerian bobsled team

The Nigerian bobsleigh team of (from left) Seun Adigun, Ngozi Onwumere and Akuoma Omeoga is the first ever to represent Africa in the sport. 

From Mexico to Kabul, the Olympics has been gathering the attentions of a world now increasingly following the Games on Twitter and streaming on internet devices than by television. 

Francis Akpata, a Nigerian-British dual national, is watching Nigeria's women's bobsled team in London – “an incredible story”, he enthuses. 

In Moscow, Diana Petrenko, who is originally from Kazakhstan, spends each evening catching up on the day's figure skating.  She cried when Ukrainian Aliona Savchenko won a gold, 16 years after her first Olympic appearance.

Meanwhile Bertha Plaza, in Mexico's Guanajuato, has discovered an enthusiasm for “all winter sports that do not involve a ball”.

And in the Hague, “the first question when two people meet is ‘did you see the ice skating?’”, says German opera singer Christina Schönbach.  “You can't really escape it here,” she adds. 

It is the Olympics, still with its power to galvanise a globe. 

 From 92 nations, 2,922 athletes have come together in Pyeongchang to contest 102 events. 

A streaming Olympics

And this competition - more than any Games before it - is the streamed Olympics. 

Viewing numbers on actual television sets are down 15 per cent from the previous Sochi Olympics in 2014. 

Instead of televisions, people around the world watch on computers and mobiles, as they work or go about their day. 

Diana Petrenko has been watching the Olympics “at home, on my laptop”. She adds: “I once watched live but it starts at 4 am." The start time in South Korea means a very early morning for fans in Moscow. 

In Kabul, cellist Robin Ryczek follows the Winter Games on social media. “I don't have a television in Kabul,” she says, but has followed “more people posting, talking, and commenting on curling”. She adds: “Perhaps that's because my mum plays it.”

Robin Ryczek

Cellist Robin Rcyzek has been avidly following the Games via social media as she doesn't have a TV in her Kabul home. 

It is also a more global Winter Olympics, with a record eight African countries competing. 

For Eritrea and Nigeria, it is their Winter Olympics debut.  

Ecuador, Malaysia, and Singapore are taking part in these Winter Games for the first time, too. 

There is a history of countries that do not normally see snow making warm-hearted efforts to participate in the Winter Olympics. 

Mexico sent a bobsleigh team to the 1928 Winter Olympics. And the Philippines send two alpine skiers to the 1972 Winter Olympics.

However, no tropical nation has ever won a Winter Olympics medal - and probably precisely for that reason, they have often captured the world's hearts with their good-humoured approach to the Olympic spirit.

Jamaica's national bobsleigh team gained fame during the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary – and they were then the inspiration for the 1993 comedy film Cool Runnings.

Crowdfunding the 2018 Games 

The 2018 Games have also been the crowdfunded Olympics.

Nigeria's bobsleigh team, made up of driver Seun Adigun, brakewomen Ngozi Onwumere, and Akuoma Omeoga, are the first to represent Africa in the sport. 

They raised $75,000 to make it to Pyeongchang through a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe as Nigeria does not have the sports budget of larger Olympic powers. 

The three trained in Texas on a home-made wooden bobsled, which Miss Adigun named the Maeflower, for her late sister, Mae-Mae. 

All three were born in America to Nigerian parents, and they met on the athletics track. 

The three women are already distinguished athletes: Miss Adigun won the 100m hurdles in the 2010 African Championships and the 2011 All-Africa Games, then represented Nigeria in London at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Meanwhile, Miss Onwumere won a gold in the 2015 All-Africa games in the 100m relay, and Miss Omeoga represented Nigeria in the 2015 All-Africa Games.

It is also the have-a-go Olympics. 

Eighteen countries are sending a single athlete each to the Games. 

Tonga’s taekwondo athlete Pita Taufatofua, who made a splash at the 2016 opening ceremony, is now a cross-country skier despite having never seen snow two years before.

In Rio, he was his country's shirtless flagbearer, and he did the same in Korea.

Away from the medals platform, there is participation and cameraderie with other athletes.

“Everyone was at the front racing to come first - we were racing not to come last. But we'll have a good laugh over dinner,” says Taufatofua. 

After crossing the line, the taekwondo athlete-turned-skier waited with Colombia's Sebastian Uprimny, Samir Azzimani of Morocco and Kequyen Lam of Portugal, and together they cheered Mexico's German Madrazo across the finish line, in 119th and last place.

Says Taufatofua : “I'd rather be finishing towards the end of the pack with all my friends than in the middle by myself. We fought together, we finished together.” 

An Olympic Détente 

The Olympics of old observed a truce to ensure that the hosting Greek city state was not attacked and athletes and spectators could safely travel back and forth.

That spirit has been in evidence for the 2018 games, with the two Koreas forming a single joint team. 

Some have called the handshake between South Korea's President Moon Jae-in and Kim Yo-jong, younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, a “handshake of history”, says Edward Howell, Economic and Social Research Council scholar in international relations at Oxford.

 

But the warming in relations probably will only last for the Games, he adds. “Once the Olympics is over, US-South Korea joint exercises are set to take place, to which North Korea will undoubtedly respond.” 

 Leaders from all over the world attended the Games, including King Willem Alexander, Queen Máxima, and Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands – all arriving on bicycles. 

“Our monarchs are very unmonarchy,” says John Jacobs, who lives in Breda in the southern Netherlands. 

Dutch speed skater Ireen Wüst, who won her 10th Olympic medal with the gold for the 1500m in Pyeongchang is now a Dutch sports hero – “to the extent the Dutch celebrate sports heroes,” he says. 

And in Germany, the Strehlaer Carneval in the small Saxon town of Strehla held its own Opening Ceremony with residents and local children, says organiser Thomas Münch. 

Meanwhile, Miss Petrenko remains glued to her computer. “Yuzuru Hanyu is god on ice,” she says of the Japanese figure skater. 

And streaming in Dubai, Sara Scarlett says Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir “are what I think soulmates are like. When you meet your soulmate, it's basically what them dancing looks like, but not on ice,” she says. 

That magic of the athletes' skill and power is infectious and inspiring, wherever you're watching from. “You cannot stay calm when they tell you the story of those athletes and then you see them perform,” says Miss Petrenko. "It's quite magical.”

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