For Africans, getting to the Winter Olympics is 99 percent of the battle

In the entire history of the Winter Olympics, the continent of Africa has never won a single medal, and that almost certainly won't change over the next few weeks in Sochi.

But despite that absence of hardware, the story of the small group of athletes to have represented African countries at the Winter Games is one of triumph, not failure.

In many cases Africa's Winter Olympians have overcome extraordinary odds just to take part, lonely tales of persistence and sacrifice, only to place near the back of the field.

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Yet each story has a heartwarming quality to it, one that doesn't have to come from a gold medal, but something even more precious.

Isaac Menyoli didn't go to Salt Lake City in 2002 with any aspirations of winning a medal in cross-country skiing. In fact, he almost didn't go at all. In order to compete at an Olympics, an athlete has to be put forward by his national skiing federation and Cameroon didn't have one.

So Menyoli started one up, even though he was by then living in Wisconsin and working as an architect. "It was an enormous headache," Menyoli said, remembering the countless phone calls and faxes and requests for authorization from the government and the national Olympic committee.

But despite having little experience in the sport, Menyoli was motivated to compete by something intensely personal. On a trip back to Cameroon in 1999 he was shocked to discover the extent to which AIDS had ravaged the population of his hometown, Buea.


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"There was no awareness or education about it; people thought so many were dying not because of AIDS, but because of witchcraft or voodoo," Menyoli said. "It broke my heart and I knew I had to do something about it. I knew the issue needed attention, so what better way than the Olympics?"

Menyoli had no back up crew in Salt Lake City; he had to arrange his own racing gear, check himself in with race officials, prepare his skis and deal with the kind of administrative formalities that most Olympians have done for them by team management.

He finished 83rd and last in the 15km classical race, hindered by a waxing problem that affected his skis and made the torturous race even more difficult and painful. In the 1.5km “sprint” he placed 67th out of 71, but his performances so impressed Olympic cross country legend Bjorn Daehlie with his tenacity that the Norwegian invited him to his mountainside chalet afterwards to swap tales and celebrate.


The greatest victory of all for Menyoli came years later when he returned to his homeland where he saw banners and billboards promoting AIDS awareness and discovered a significant drop in the AIDS mortality rate.

"It made it all worthwhile," he said.

The main reason so few African athletes compete at the Winter Olympics is the most obvious one. There is hardly any snow. Four countries – Algeria, Morocco, South Africa and Lesotho – have established ski resorts, but most African nations have warm weather for much of the year.

In Zimbabwe, for example, snowfall has only been recorded once, a light sprinkling back in 1960 caused by a freak storm. That however, has not stopped Zimbabwean skier Luke Steyn, 20, from qualifying for Sochi, where he will compete in the slalom and giant slalom events.


Steyn, who will be Zimbabwe's first-ever Winter Olympian, spent the early part of the year trudging around Europe, driving more than 1,800 miles between events in order to gain the necessary points to qualify for Sochi. Even then he was nearly foiled when several meets were cancelled due to a lack of snow.

At least Steyn had the backing of the recently formed Zimbabwean snow sports council and its national sports committee to help him negotiate some of the political and bureaucratic red tape that is part of competing at the Games.

Like Menyoli, Robel Teklemariam had no formal initial backing when he started to pursue his Olympic dream. Teklemariam moved from Ethiopia to the United States at age nine and was inspired by the movie Cool Runnings, about the Jamaican bobsled team, to try to compete in the Games.

He spent thousands of dollars on phone calls alone trying to get approval from the relevant authorities in Ethiopia, before finally being given permission to try to qualify for the 2006 Torino Games.


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In Torino, he placed 83rd out of 99 competitors in the 15km and returned to the Olympic stage in Vancouver four years later, placing 93rd out of 95.

The efforts of the likes of Menyoli and Teklemariam have helped raise awareness of winter sports in Africa, and now some national Olympic federations are taking a greater interest.

When Teklemariam, now a ski instructor living in Japan, watches African competitors in Sochi, be it Alessia Afi Dipol and Mathilde-Amivi Petitjean of Togo, or Moroccan alpine skiers Adam Lamhamedi and Kenza Tazi, he will feel pride in having played his part.


"It makes me happy because sports is not a thing where it's just certain countries and certain people," Teklemariam said. "Sports is a thing where if you have passion and you want to do it then you could have the chance to represent your country.

"When I see those athletes I am very understanding of what their feelings are like. I know that in some form I know I'm a part of that equation in there."

The famous Olympic phrase uttered by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founding father of the modern Games reads: "It is not the winning, but the taking part that counts."

Few exemplify that spirit better than Africa's small collection of Winter Olympians, for whom participation is a genuine victory in itself.

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