By MOTOKO RICH and EMMANUEL AKINWOTU
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — After all the news media interviews, after dancing on “Ellen” and attending receptions in their honor, it was time for the three women of the Nigerian bobsled team to get on the ice at the Pyeongchang Games.
At first blush, it did not go so well, as their first trial runs on Saturday left them in last place, 19th out of 19, though official competition starts on Tuesday.
But then, they have attracted a following less because of their medal chances and more for their aim to break barriers and “to help women, the country, the continent,” as the team’s captain and driver, Seun Adigun of Houston, put it.
Theirs is a common tale of diaspora brought to the Olympics, where athletes born in one country often end up competing for another where they have familial ties. (One of two women competing for the Jamaican women’s bobsled team, which finished as high as ninth on one training run Saturday, was born in the United States.)
Yet the Nigerian bobsled team, all born in the United States and made up of Adigun, Akuoma Omeoga of St. Paul and Ngozi Onwumere of Dallas, have sought to ensure their message resonates in the country and continent they represent.
Before departing for Pyeongchang they visited Nigeria, where they attended receptions and were invited to visit its president after the Games.
To Victor Chukwuemeka, 41, a business consultant in Abuja, the capital, the team’s effort at the Olympics is inspiring.
“Looking at their pedigree, I’m so impressed by them,” Chukwuemeka, who read about the team in a newspaper, said on a recent morning.
“They had every chance to try to represent the United States, where they were born, but they deemed it fit to represent Nigeria and Africa,” Chukwuemeka said. “To me, that means they felt national pride, and I’m really so proud of them.”
Yet in a country where athletic news is still largely dominated by men’s sports, the bobsled team has not attracted as much attention as it has garnered in the United States.
Ekeoma Akwiwu, 59, once the general manager at the state broadcast service, said the “attitude toward women in sports is so unsatisfactory; we don’t promote them as much as we should.”
She recalled the Nigerian women’s track team that won a surprise bronze medal at the 1992 Summer Games in the 4-by-100-meter relay.
“They’re now iconic, but at the time we didn’t value them until they won,” Akwiwu said. “I remember how we pushed to celebrate them after they won, but until then they weren’t in the limelight or supported.”
In Pyeongchang, members of the bobsled team said they wanted to inspire a generation of women to follow them.
“Having young girls and women in general be able to see us on the screen and know that we have done this and it’s doable” is extremely important, Onwumere said.
She said she hoped that girls born and raised in the homeland of her parents would realize that even if they come from a country without snow or ice, they could still learn to compete in a winter sport.
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“To be able to truly represent Nigeria, you’re going to need homegrown athletes that are going to be involved,” she said.
For Adigun, the limelight in the United States and in Pyeongchang has been harder to adjust to. Although she competed at the 2012 London Olympics in track, Adigun said that as an introvert, the news media attention has sometimes pushed her out of her comfort zone.
“When we first started this it was, O.K., this could go one of two ways,” Adigun said. “This could be something that would be really cool, something that we give back, something that people could just be proud of and we could just kind of be low key, get it done, and we could just live in that legacy. Or people would get really, really excited and then we’d have to figure out how to manage life that way. And so the latter ended up being the reality.”
Now, she has fully embraced her cause. “This is something that will help the sport, something that will help women, the country, the continent,” she said, “and those things keep me grounded and keep me able to handle it.”