Empowerment, Friendship and Black Role Models at the Winter Olympics

February 16th, 2018

Jamaicans are not normally particularly engaged with the Winter Olympics. After all, we don’t have ice and snow and are not used to negotiating it, let alone turning it into a sport. Climate change may eventually see to it that many previous sites for the Games will no longer be cold enough, even in miserable February, by mid-century, or before.

However, the Cool Runnings movie of 1993 changed all that. Cheesy it was, yes – but people remember it as a “feel good” movie with a catchy title. Since then, Jamaica’s appearance is seen as a novelty – the reliably entertaining part of the Winter Olympics, if you will, dancing into the stadium at the opening parade. What they lack in numbers they make up for in energy and spirit. This year, they even outshone the well-oiled topless Tongan man, who made a brief but stunning appearance at the Opening Ceremony. There are other unusual competitors from non-snowy countries, nowadays, and six countries are competing for the first time: I don’t believe Singapore or Nigeria have even a hint of snow, do they? Moreover, Nigeria’s women’s bobsled team is the first African team to qualify for that sport, albeit Texas-based (no matter).

All of this might add extra interest for the media, and its global audience But for the athletes involved, the competition is a serious matter. Our teams don’t dress in striking Jamaican flag colours just for the photo-ops. We only have three Jamaicans competing this year: skeleton slider Anthony Watson, and two intrepid women bobsledders: Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian and Carrie Russell. All three of them are “firsts” for Jamaica in their sports.

Carrie Russell (left) and Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian, the Jamaican bobsled team.  (Photo: Rex Features)

Carrie Russell (left) and Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian, the Jamaican bobsled team. (Photo: Rex Features)

There was some drama for the women – the coach, the bobsled, and a certain beer company. Putting that aside, what has been most notable was a speech made by Ms. Fenlator-Victorian at a press briefing before the Games started. Breaking into a smile at times and then becoming serious, she had tearful moments, clenching a fist and pressing it on the table. However she sounded determined as she talked about returning “home” (Jamaica) to encourage young people that there is no limit to what they can do. Fenlator-Victorian was born in New Jersey, the daughter of immigrants, with a Jamaican father and a Latvian mother. Perhaps this is why diversity means so much to her – and beyond that, but the sense that young Jamaicans may limit themselves in their aspirations, because of their colour, their status in the world. So, among the things she said was:

“It’s important to me that little girls and boys see someone that looks like them, talks like them, has the same culture as them, has crazy curly hair and wears it natural, has brown skin – included in different things in this world.”

Jamaica's Anthony Watson (left) and Ghana's Akwasi Frimpong at the Winter Olympics. (Photo: Asahi Shimbun)

Jamaica’s Anthony Watson (left) and Ghana’s Akwasi Frimpong at the Winter Olympics. (Photo: Asahi Shimbun)

Anthony Watson gave his very best in the “skeleton.” I never heard of this sport before! He has now been eliminated. However, in Korea he met up with Akwasi Frimpong of Ghana, a former illegal immigrant to the Netherlands, who sports a stunning helmet depicting a rabbit escaping a lion’s mouth. They became good friends. Frimpong’s motivation was similar to Fenlator-Victorian’s (and he, too, became emotional) while talking about it:

For me, being at the Winter Olympics is about breaking barriers, to show that black people, people from warm countries, can do this as well. Second, I want to motivate and inspire people in my country, to show kids in a little corner what they can do. That little kid was just like myself, living with 10 other kids in a 4x5m room that would never see snow before.

So, as the mighty Germans and Norwegians soar high in the air, sometimes turning upside down; as a Japanese skater twirls with extraordinary grace on the ice; as the Dutch and the British race furiously around the stadium…in a quieter way, partnerships are being forged and spirits lifted among those countries, those athletes who did not expect to win gold, but put their whole heart and being into the competition.

Thanks for the inspiration – for our youth, especially – Anthony, Jazmine, Carrie, Akwasi and all the other competitors, courageous, determined…and in that cold, snowy place for the very first time.




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