KRASNAYA POLYANA, RUSSIA — Cross country skier Mathilde Petitjean sees herself as a pioneer. She is the first athlete from the West African country of Togo to compete in the Winter Olympics.
“I think that I will inspire more Africans to ski, people of black color, to want to ski,” she said, standing with her skis by the cross country course. “There may be more skating. There is no snow in Africa, but they can build skating rinks.”
And the welcome in Russia, this land of snow and ice?
She responded with a big smile: “Very, very well. Everyone is super nice with me. A lot of racers ask me where I train, because in Africa there is no snow.”
Traditionally, athletes in the Winter Olympics have been as white as the snow and ice they compete on. But this year, more and more, black athletes are competing in the Sochi Winter Olympics
There is American speed skater Shani Davis, French female figure skater Maé Bérénice Méité, and American bobsledder Lauryn Williams, who won a silver medal on Wednesday.
The big celebrities in Sochi are the Jamaican bobsled team, who returned to the Winter Olympics this week after a 12-year absence.
Winston Watts, their team captain, talks about the future: “The goal towards the next Olympics is that we are going to develop younger pilots, get younger athletes to pursue their dream to go forward to Korea.”
The most proactive are the Togolese, who have trolled the Internet for prospective winter sports athletes and held press conferences in Sochi.
“We have been in Sochi 10 days now and we have candidacies of at least 20 Togolese living abroad who would like to participate,” Mawuli Ramanou, Development Director of Togo’s Olympic Committee, told reporters on Thursday.
Togo’s Ski Coach Steve Grundmann, a German, said: “No one believed in us, and everybody was laughing about us, and we never stopped, and we really continued and we believed in it. We said wanted to bring Togo on that winter sports map, and we did it!”
He added: “We created a skiing federation in Western Africa.”
Back on the mountain, by the Olympic cross-country ski course, Nicolas Ramanou, Togo Ski Federation technical director, threw down a challenge to other African nations: “As long as there are African jet pilots, there can also be Africans who can ski.”
If trends hold up, more black athletes will compete at the 2018 Winter Olympics, in Pyeongchang, South Korea.