This year, the world will see the largest Winter Olympics games ever, with 92 nations participating, as well as athletes from Russia and Taiwan (which competes as Chinese Taipei). That’s four more nations than at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, and a whole lot more than the 16 nations that were in the first Winter Olympics in France in 1924.
Increasingly, nations that don’t have much in the way of a winter, or a tradition of winter sports, are participating. The majority of the six debut countries this year fall into that category.
There’s another common thread binding the newcomers—most of the countries debuting this year are relying on the children of families that migrated to other nations. While some describe the practice of representing a country that one hasn’t spent a lot of time in as “Olympic carpetbagging,” it’s not just about opportunism. For many of these athletes, it’s a chance to do something for a country that’s been a formative part of their identity, and to put that country on the Olympics map.
Here are the athletes bringing six countries into the Winter Olympics for the first time.
Ecuador: cross-country skiing
Ecuador is going to be represented by one man: 38-year-old cross-country skier Klaus Jungbluth, who will also be the South American country’s flag bearer for the opening ceremony.
Jungbluth discovered the sport during his time studying in snowy Norway and the Czech Republic—but back home in Ecuador, he’s had to practice the sport on roller skis in the city of Guayaquil, which earned him the nickname “Tarmac skier.” Jungbluth is now pursuing a PhD in sports science in Queensland, Australia, where he continues to train on roller skis, taking to the streets at 4 am every day.
Qualifying for the Olympics was no easy task for Jungbluth. Ecuador had no ski federation, a necessity for athletes to compete for the country. Jungbluth helped create one with assistance from the country’s Olympic Committee.
Jungbluth qualified in October 2017 after competing in a series of intensive qualifiers held in Australia, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. He will be competing on Feb. 16 in the 15-kilometer freestyle event.
Eritrea: alpine skiing
As the country’s sole participant at the Winter Olympics, Shannon-Ogbani Abeda will carry the Eritrean flag at the opening and closing ceremonies in Pyeongchang. But much of the practice that led him to the games happened in Fort McMurray, Canada, where he was born. With both of Abeda’s Eritrean parents moving to North America as refugees in the 1980s and eventually settling in Canada, Abeda first started skiing when he was three. That experience has now paid off as he will compete in alpine skiing slalom and giant slalom at Pyeongchang.
It won’t be his first time representing Eritrea at an international sports tournament though. In 2012, Abeda, then 16, represented Eritrea at the Youth Olympics in Austria. Abeda hopes that his appearance at the Olympics puts Eritrea on the map not just now, but in the future. “I hope to inspire other kids, whether they come from Eritrea, or another small country or small town, that one day they too could be in the Olympics,” he said.
Kosovo: alpine skiing
Kosovo has no lack of snow, and yet it’s not been easy for the tiny Balkan nation to get into the Winter Olympics—or the summer ones, for that matter. Kosovo in 2008 declared independence from Serbia, which lobbied hard to block its recognition as a separate Olympic nation. The International Olympic Committee recognized Kosovo in late 2014 and it competed in the Olympics for the first time in Rio two years later, even though the host country, Brazil, hadn’t formally recognized its independence.
The country’s first Winter Olympian, Albin Tahiri, started skiing at the age of seven in Slovenia, where he was born. “When I started skiing Kosovo was not an independent country,” said the 28-year-old, “My father always cheered for Kosovan athletes and I did it as well, so when Kosovo proclaimed independence I wanted to help by representing the country as an athlete.”
Tahiri said he spent nearly every day of the previous winter at a different race to meet the points requirements to compete in the Olympics.
The 10th anniversary of Kosovo’s declaration of independence will fall during the Games.
Malaysia: alpine skiing, figure skating
Jeffrey Webb became the first Malaysian to qualify for the Winter Olympics when he earned his spot to compete in alpine skiing (paywall). Born in Kuala Lumpur, 19-year-old Webb moved to the US when he was five. His father is an alpine-skiing coach, while his mother is the vice president of Ski Malaysia, a member association of the world’s highest governing body for international winter sports, Fédération Internationale de Ski. The young alpine skier trained in Oregon and Switzerland. Webb spent nearly a third of the year training on the snow every year, according to his mother.
The second Malaysian qualifier, Julian Zhi-jie Yee, will compete in men’s figure skating. The 20-year-old secured his ticket in September 2017. Born in Kuala Lumpur, Yee began skating at four. He does most of his training at two rinks in local shopping malls. To prepare for the Olympics, Yee said he would skate at least three hours a day, in addition to off-ice training such as ballet for balancing. Yee’s scheduled to compete on 16 and 17 of February.
Nigeria: women’s bobsled, skeleton
Nigeria’s first-time participation at the Winter Olympics has been highly anticipated for its female bobsled team, made up of three accomplished track-and-field stars: Chicago-born Seun Adigun; Akuoma Omeoga, who competed for the University of Minnesota; and Ngozi Onwumere, from Dallas. They’ll become the first African team to participate in the sport of bobsled at the Winter Olympics.
On their journey to the Olympics, the odds were firmly stacked against them. First, all three had to learn the sport for the first time. They also had to set up Nigeria’s national bobsled federation, raising money through a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for training and buy equipment. But all that hard work has started paying off even before the Games begin. Global brands including Under Armour, Visa, and Beats by Dre have partnered with the team.
Just like the bobsled team, Simidele Adeagbo is on the verge of making history as the first female skeleton athlete from Africa to qualify for the Olympics. A former triple-jump athlete, Adeagbo, 36, unsuccessfully tried to qualify for the Summer Olympics 10 years ago. However, her dream to become an Olympian will come true in Pyeongchang, a feat largely inspired by the bobsled team. After initially trying to join the bobsledders, she took up skeleton and qualified even though her first race ever was in November 2017.
Singapore: short-track speed skating
Born in Singapore, Cheyenne Goh moved to Canada at the age of four, where she picked up ice skating. She then began playing ice hockey. “I’ve always loved the skating part of hockey,”said Goh (video). After watching the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, her father suggested Goh try speed skating, which she decided to pursue further in 2012. Her coach Chun Lee-kyung is a four-time South Korean Olympics champion.
Goh, 18 and just out of high school, will represent Singapore in the ladies’ 1,500 short-track speed skating competition on Feb. 17. Goh secured her qualification in November 2017 in Shanghai, after which she was ranked 36th in the world.