Bobsleigh and skeleton at the center of global representation kerfuffle for second straight Winter Olympics

The sliding sports of bobsleigh and skeleton have once again found themselves in a global representation row involving the participation of small and non-traditional winter sports countries at the Winter Olympics.

FILE PHOTO: Skeleton – Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics – Men’s Competition – Olympic Sliding Centre - Pyeongchang, South Korea – February 15, 2018 - Akwasi Frimpong of Ghana in action during the heat. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Skeleton – Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics – Men’s Competition – Olympic Sliding Centre - Pyeongchang, South Korea – February 15, 2018 - Akwasi Frimpong of Ghana in action during the heat. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo

Zach Lund and Brian Macdonald, coaches of bobsleigh and skeleton athletes, Akwasi Frimpomg and Simidele Adeagbo, penned a letter to International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach in December asking him to reinstate the continental representation quotas in the sports of bobsleigh and skeleton for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

In the letter, the two state they believe “African representation in Winter Olympic sport is of utmost importance to the Olympic movement,” adding, “we should not allow Olympic sport to take a step backward in terms of the inclusion of African nations successfully competing in the Winter Olympic Games.”

Lund and Macdonald also argued that the logistical impacts of such a decision would be minimal, and the exclusion of their athletes would be “a crushing blow to African athletes,” who have helped inspire people from around the African continent to take an active interest in winter sports.

They also cite the greater difficulties faced by athletes attempting to break into winter sport from non-traditional winter environments, arguing that a continental quota should “remain in effect until the inequalities and difficulties are no longer obstacles for African NOC’s [National Olympic Committees] in Winter Olympic sport.”

Lastly, the pair cites the IOC’s support of smaller nations at the Summer Olympic Games, where the organization often gives out invitations to athletes from countries lacking representation or to athletes with little international experience, who sometimes have even failed to meet qualification standards.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics – Opening ceremony – Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium - Pyeongchang, South Korea – February 9, 2018 - Ngozi Onwumere of Nigeria carries the national flag. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini
Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics – Opening ceremony – Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium - Pyeongchang, South Korea – February 9, 2018 - Ngozi Onwumere of Nigeria carries the national flag. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

Both Akwasi Frimpong and Simidele Adeagbo have dedicated themselves to the sports of bobsleigh and skeleton over the last Olympic cycle. Both have helped establish the sports further in their own countries through their efforts to get more African athletes involved in sports.

At present, both Frimpong and Adeagbo are likely to miss out on qualification for the 2022 Winter Olympics. In previous cycles, they would have likely qualified for the Winter Olympics via the continental representation quota, which allowed athletes from unrepresented continents to qualify for the Games, so long as they met basic safety and participation requirements.

Their efforts to get the continental representation quota reinstated for Beijing 2022 were also dealt a heavy blow this week, after the IOC denied their request in a letter seen by Reuters.

Excerpts from the letter, written by IOC Sports Director Kit McConnell, read, “in this specific case, the Olympic qualification process for Beijing 2022 was proposed and approved by the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) in December 2019 and this was subsequently approved by the IOC Executive Board, including the athlete quota.”

“Following this, and understanding that we cannot increase the number of qualified athletes, giving an athlete a quota place which is not according to the qualification criteria would consequently imply the exclusion of another athlete qualified in the current qualification system.”

“Accordingly, we regret to confirm that an additional out of quota place cannot be allocated to Mr. Frimpong.” It is also assumed the continental representation quota will not be reinstated for Adeagbo as well.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics – Opening ceremony – Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium - Pyeongchang, South Korea – February 9, 2018 - Akwasi Frimpong of Ghana carries the national flag. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics – Opening ceremony – Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium - Pyeongchang, South Korea – February 9, 2018 - Akwasi Frimpong of Ghana carries the national flag. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Frimpong told Reuters; “I feel devastated and broken, and not sure if this is all really happening because my dream and hard work is just snatched away from me due to something out of my own control.”

In response to a question about a possible run at qualification for the 2026 Winter Olympics, Frimpong stated he was undecided, adding it was difficult for him to find the sponsorships and support he needed to mount a challenge against countries with deeper programs.

The circumstances of the present qualification struggles faced by Frimpong and Adeagbo align well with the struggles faced by Katie Tannenbaum of the U.S. Virgin Islands in her attempt to secure qualification in the sport of skeleton for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

Tannenbaum found herself in a similar situation having met the minimum qualification requirements, but falling outside the athlete quotas allocated based on the IBSF Ranking List.

She appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), with the support of the Virgin Islands Olympic Committee (VIOC), in a last ditch effort to secure qualification for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Prior to her appeal, the VIOC had written to the IOC, asking the organization to grant Tannenbaum a quota to compete at the 2018 Winter Olympics. They received a similar reply to the one Frimpong and Adeagbo got from McConnell.

Katie Tannenbaum pushes her sled down the run in St. Mortiz. Photo provided by: IBSF
Katie Tannenbaum pushes her sled down the run in St. Mortiz. Photo provided by: IBSF

The response read, “as I believe the IBSF has confirmed to Ms. Tannenbaum, there are no universality or Tripartite Commission places in any sports in the program of the Olympic Winter Games, including the disciple of skeleton.”

“Therefore, while noting the outstanding performances she has achieved this season, and the support provided through her scholarship, we understand she has not met the specified qualification standards for skeleton and thus we are unfortunately not in a position to offer her a qualification place for those Olympic Winter Games.”

At CAS, Tannenbaum and the VIOC argued she deserved to be allocated a quota under the principle of universality. In a similar manner to the coaches of Frimpong and Adeagbo, they didn’t wish for her to take another athlete’s place, but rather to be granted an additional entry in the sport of skeleton at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The panel assembled by CAS to hear the case ultimately acknowledged “the principle of universal representation in the Olympic Games,” but concluded “this principle does not give every country the right to participate.”

The remaining arguments made by Tannenbaum and the VIOC failed to sway the panel, which ruled to dismiss her request to be distributed an additional quota place to represent the U.S. Virgin Islands at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics – Opening ceremony – Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium - Pyeongchang, South Korea – February 9, 2018 - Mialitiana Stephanie Charlotte Clerc of Madagascar carries the national flag. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini
Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics – Opening ceremony – Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium - Pyeongchang, South Korea – February 9, 2018 - Mialitiana Stephanie Charlotte Clerc of Madagascar carries the national flag. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

The case may have dashed the hopes of Tannenbaum, and set a precedent that will be difficult for Frimpong and Adeagbo to overcome should they seek a similar legal solution, but it also points to a larger inequity faced by winter sports athletes from smaller and non-traditional winter sports nations.

As stated in the arguments made by Tannenbaum, and the coaches of Frimpong and Adeagbo, the IOC has made it a point to guarantee universality at the Summer Olympic Games. This approach has allowed athletes from countries with traditionally small delegations a second chance at qualification in various individual sports through an invitation process reserved for athletes from those countries.

In fact, the Qualification System Principles for the Paris 2024 Summer Olympic Games, a set of guidelines released by the IOC to help international federations create their qualification systems for the Olympic Games, includes a provision that “each qualification system shall ensure continental representation across the respective sport.”

That same document also includes a provision that “each qualification system must ensure a minimum number of universality places (formerly known as tripartite commission invitation places),” which may be “subject to minimum eligibility criteria.”

Those same provisions do not exist in the qualification system principles for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athletics - Men's 100m - Preliminary Round - OLS - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - July 31, 2021. Fabrice Dabla of Togo, Ngoni Makusha of Zimbabwe, Yeykell Romero of Nicaragua, Lataisi Mwea of Kiribati, Sha Mahmood Noor Zahi of Afghanistan, Shaun Gill of Belize and Nathan Crumpton of American Samoa in action REUTERS/Phil Noble
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athletics - Men's 100m - Preliminary Round - OLS - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - July 31, 2021. Fabrice Dabla of Togo, Ngoni Makusha of Zimbabwe, Yeykell Romero of Nicaragua, Lataisi Mwea of Kiribati, Sha Mahmood Noor Zahi of Afghanistan, Shaun Gill of Belize and Nathan Crumpton of American Samoa in action REUTERS/Phil Noble

The key wording in that document reads, “Qualification Systems must allow for the participation of the best athletes through a fair and transparent process within the framework of the Olympic Charter and the Rules of each International Federation (IF) concerned to maximize the opportunity for continental representation at the Games.”

While international federations are asked to “maximize the opportunity for continental representation,” they are not asked to “ensure continental representation.” That slight variation in wording from the IOC has significantly impacted the chances of athletes from smaller or non-traditional winter sports nations qualifying for the Winter Olympics.

It is likely that Frimpong and Adeagbo will meet a fate similar to the one met by Tannenbaum in 2018; relegated to watching the Winter Olympics from the comfort of their own homes.

Frimpong and Adeagbo still have an outside chance at qualifying for the 2022 Winter Olympics, but with the qualification period coming to a close on Monday, it seems unlikely either will be ranked high enough to gain a quota place for Beijing.