Eritrea's 1st winter Olympian details mental anguish from racism growing up in Canada
Shannon-Ogbani Abeda says he experienced racial abuse from peers, adults as a teen
Skier Shannon-Ogbani Abeda's journey to becoming the first winter Olympian to represent Eritrea carried with it a racial burden he says he's only now beginning to unravel.
At the finish line of his final race at the Pyeongchang Games in 2018 where he finished 61st in the giant slalom event, overcome with a flood of emotions he broke down as he reflected on the years leading up to that moment.
Born in Fort McMurray, Alta., and raised in Calgary to parents who immigrated to Canada from the East African nation, Abeda admits that as one of the only Black athletes competing in his sport in his early teens, he tried to hide his heritage in an attempt to fit in with his white peers.
It wasn't until Abeda experienced a decline in his mental health which led to a nervous breakdown that he began to unpack the racial trauma he experienced throughout his journey.
"People were using the N-word in reference to me," recalled Abeda, who says he heard racist comments coming from some of the adult volunteers and fellow athletes at his first K2 nationals (under-15) which took place in Ontario when he was 14 years old in 2011.
"A group of volunteers were laughing at me and one of them said, 'They should have lessons back in Africa.' It was that event I believe that contributed to my decision to compete for Eritrea. I felt, subconsciously, that I wanted to be more connected to my [African] heritage."
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Now 24 years old, Abeda says he was "a wreck" after the experience. He joined the International Ski Federation (FIS) the following year and says that was when the verbal and physical bullying in his Calgary training group began and lasted the entire year.
He recalls that racial slurs were directed at him by a peer on a regular basis at practice and he was a target of physical bullying while at away races.
Abeda recalls that twins Ali and Cath Curruthers, who were adopted from Haiti by a white family from Alberta, were among the only other Black skiers he saw competing at around the same time. The now 20-year-olds say their experience in the sport was overwhelmingly positive and recognize that having white parents has afforded them some "white privilege."
It wasn't until a switch to the more diverse sport of track and field at age 17 that they realized how much of an issue the lack of diversity in skiing had been.
"I remember the first time I stepped on that track, it was a noticeable difference," Ali said. "I was like, 'Whoa, I feel so welcomed here.' I didn't feel like I was being stared at or people thinking, 'Why is she here?' Or, 'Do you really think you can do this kind of thing?'"
Shortly after the traumatic experience in 2011, Abeda declared Eritrean citizenship and competed under the flag at the 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria.
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With his mental health suffering, by February 2015, he stopped skiing for several months due to depression.
He says at the time he was taking his anger out on teammates and began lashing out, breaking polls and having very public meltdowns — even incurring a sanction for screaming the F-word in competition after failing to complete a race.
Abeda recalls an incident while at dinner with teammates at a competition in 2015, when a friend of his received a Snapchat from an athlete on another team which included a racist message clearly directed toward him.
"He was yelling and saying that N-words are stinky people," said Abeda, who was the only Black athlete on his team. "He said they're disgusting and that all of these N-words should die."
Able to find a healthy coaching and training situation after a move to B.C., by April 2017 Abeda met the Olympic standard under alpine skiing's basic quota rule and messages of support poured in from Eritreans around the globe.
Abeda was even bestowed the honour of being named the country's flag-bearer for the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
Symbol for change
Though he couldn't at the time, through therapy, books and lots of time for reflection over the past two years, the University of Lethbridge business management student has come to realize the significant impact he's made on the Eritrean diaspora.
While Abeda never competed under the Canadian national team program, Alpine Canada in a statement expressed commitment to "maintaining an environment where all feel valued and included, both on and off the slopes."
"Since May 2018, Alpine Canada has administered an independent third-party mechanism to review and address incidents of misconduct. This is a process that is open to all athletes within Canadian ski racing. Although we are unaware of and were not party to these allegations involving a Canadian ski club, we believe in supporting an inclusive environment for all athletes. Certified coaches are required to take the safe sport module and and we strongly encourage and promote all coaches to complete the Respect Group modules, Respect for Activity Leader and/or Respect in the Workplace.
"Alpine Canada continues to promote initiatives to strengthen diversity and inclusion across ski racing and have introduced an equity, diversity and inclusion policy and work plan to be implemented across the organization along with our existing safe sport training."
CBC Sports reached out to the FIS, which did not directly comment but pointed toward the organization's code of ethics, which outlines a non-discrimination and harassment policy on any grounds including race.
Abeda retired from skiing in July of last year and earned his coaching certification in December. He hopes to encourage a generation of Black youth to take up the sport and to continue to inspire diversity with his presence by showing them they are not alone.
"My nephew was born in January 2019 and it makes me emotional," said Abeda, who is the youngest of five siblings. "My brother said you have to get him on skis and that's something I want to be able to inspire him to do. I want to teach him and others that it's okay to be different and that there's so much opportunity and room to grow."