A substantial body of research has demonstrated that media coverage of the Olympics often perpetuates nationalistic and ethnocentric ideas. While the Olympics are popularly touted for “bringing people together,” Olympic media coverage may also reinforce and naturalize problematic ideas about gender, race, nation and culture. With these concerns in mind, one storyline to be mindful of is the qualification of a women’s bobsled team from Nigeria, the first from the African continent to appear in the Olympics.
In my book, The Black Migrant Athlete, I argue that the simplistic ways in which these athletes are discussed work to obscure the immigrant experience and keep black immigrant communities invisible in the United States. These shortcomings, for the Nigerian women’s bobsled team, are highlighted when we come to learn that each member the three-person team (Seun Adigun, Ngozi Onwumere, and Akuoma Omeoga) was actually born, raised, and educated in the United States. This fact is not obvious from much of the coverage so far, as it is often stated that they are simply “from Nigeria.” This description tends to be a feature in coverage of “African” athletes—even if they are born in or naturalized to Western citizenship, they are rooted firmly in Africa by Western media and thus rendered exterior to the West. If black African athletes are often kept foreign by the media, what else might we expect to see in the coverage of the Nigerian women’s bobsled team?
A few indications are captured in a recent article by Dennis Dodd on cbssports.com entitled, “How culture, passion and genetics are fueling a Nigerian takeover of U.S. sports.” Per the title, Dodd argues that the success of Nigerian athletes can be attributed to culture, passion, and genetics. Certainly, the number of athletes with Nigerian backgrounds in the U.S. has increased over the years, but simplistic explanations, such as those offered by Dodd, do little to help us understand their success.
First, let us take the assertion that Nigerian success is a matter of “culture.” Without seeming to realize it, the article collapses first generation immigrants (those born in Nigeria) and second generation immigrants (those born in the U.S.) in a simple fashion. There is little recognition of how these different immigration statuses bear on the experiences of the respective groups. It is assumed that the “Nigerian culture,” something which is never clearly described, is transported easily and effortlessly into the receiving communities of Nigerian immigration.
Even putting aside the difficulties first generation immigrants often face, the second generation immigrant experience can be drastically different from their immigrant parent(s), as they must grow up navigating their host culture from childhood. For example, their experiences of being black in the U.S., but not African American, comes with their own negotiations of identity that are not easily captured by “Nigerian culture.” While many second generation African immigrants profess strong country of origin identities, we rarely receive any analysis as to why that is so. Often it is assumed to be more or less a matter of “natural” affinity and not the result of feeling like an outsider.
With culture not being adequately explained, we are left to assume that the heart of “culture-as-success” lies in Dodd’s second assertion—“passion.” Dodd sees this passion on full display for Nigerians in the realm of education. However, that an immigrant population puts effort into education is nothing new, as many immigrant groups to the U.S./West have stressed education to some degree. The problem that Dodd runs into is in assuming that Nigerians are somehow unique in this aim or do not have certain advantages, such as higher levels of cultural capital, that other groups might not have. Articles like Dodd’s position Nigerian immigrants as a “model minority,” portraying them as highly motivated, successful, and worthy of social advancement.
The problem is that model minorities in the United States, whatever their race or national origin, have long been positioned against African Americans in various ways. The reasoning goes that if “Nigerians” are able to succeed in sport and gain high levels of education via athletic scholarships, then certainly African Americans can as well. This state of affairs ignores the fact that black immigrants often present to white Americans as a “model minority” because they do not immediately reflect the country’s history of racist oppression back at itself. In this way, the position of black Africans in the U.S. is sustainable in so far as black Africans adhere to the standard of the model minority—meaning that, most importantly, they do not question the racial order or their place in society.
The final assertion by Dodd for the success of Nigerians is the most overtly racist—“genetics.” Arguments about black athletes having genetic or biological advantages have been discredited at least since Montague Cobb in the 1930s, and even more recent claims, such as “fast twitch” muscles or “speed genes,” do not pass scrutiny. What is more telling of the operation of race in the U.S. is that black African immigrants seem to be limited to sports (football, basketball, athletics) dominated by African Americans instead of being represented in a wider range of sports.
If Dodd’s article is any indication, we should expect the Nigerian women’s bobsled team to receive simplistic media coverage emphasizing their Nigerian culture or identity, ignoring the presence of Nigerian communities in the U.S., and perpetuating stereotypical assumptions of genetic or biological athleticism. Instead of an opportunity to reflect about how immigration and sport can challenge national borders and the racial hierarchies they maintain, we will likely be presented the opposite. The Olympics and accompanying media coverage offer a version of sport that hides the very real complexities of identity, belonging, culture, and diaspora. That some nations/races/cultures are thought to have particular natural/genetic/biological predispositions to certain athletic qualities or playing styles reinforces white supremacy, as, historically, ideas about racial differentiation have been used to maintain the place of whiteness atop the racial hierarchy. We deserve better.
Munene Mwaniki is an assistant professor of sociology at Western Carolina University. He is the author of The Black Migrant Athlete: Media, Race, and the Diaspora in Sport (University of Nebraska Press, 2017). His work has appeared in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, Communication & Sport, and an upcoming anthology on sport in Africa (Routledge, 2018). His research broadly focuses on the intersections of race, immigration, and sport.