Kenya’s only ice hockey team aims for Beijing Olympics
At the Gangneung Olympic Park, five men are the focus of attention.
As they walk around, taking in the sights, they are asked for selfies from South Koreans, Americans, people from all around the world.
Yet they have not won a medal or broken a world record. They are not even international athletes. But these are men who have captured hearts as they chase a dream.
Benard Azegere, Robert Ouko Opiyo, Omar Sakwa Osman, Gedion Mutua Amiani and Amos Mungai Ndnugu are members of Kenya’s first amateur ice hockey team — the Ice Lions — and they have ambitions of representing their country at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Nowhere in Kenya to buy skates, gloves, or helmets
Fanciful? There is much standing in their way.
There is no professional league, or even another team for them to compete against. For the last five years the team, formed in 2012, has had to make do with second-hand equipment given to them by visiting Canadians and Americans because there isn’t anywhere to buy skates, gloves or helmets in their native Nairobi.
It comes as no surprise to find out that friends and family thought captain Azegere was “crazy” when he and his friends formed the team.
“It’s not been easy for us,” the 31-year-old tells CNN Sport.
“In Kenya we have different sports — soccer, athletics, rugby. I played all that, but after an ice rink came to Nairobi we decided to take on a new sport, something unique.
“Some friends thought I was crazy, most of them told me it’s a white man sport, that it’s only played by Europeans and that I don’t stand a chance.”
‘Four years is enough time for us’
Their story has struck a chord with many around the world, however, and since recently featuring in an Olympic advertising campaign, which has received almost six million views on YouTube in three weeks, the team’s ambitions don’t seem quite so crazy.
Canadians have offered to visit them in Nairobi for a two-week training clinic, while China’s biggest e-commerce company — the Alibaba Group — has donated equipment and arranged that the team has regular access to Nairobi’s ice rink. Alibaba is also sponsoring some Olympics-related content on CNN Digital during the Games.
Currently the Ice Lions train twice a week, on Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings.
“In every training session we used to come out with injuries and bruises because we didn’t have full gear,” says Azegere, who first fell in love with ice hockey after watching the 2010 Winter Olympics on TV.
“For the goalie, we didn’t have a proper cage so we looked for a welder who made a wire mesh, steel mesh, and that’s what we’ve been using for almost five years now.
“Most of the time we don’t play with helmets, which is hazardous, but now with this new equipment we have the confidence to make it.
“Our major problem was ice time and the gear but now we have no excuse and all we have is to train. Four years is enough time for us.”
From Nairobi to PyeongChang
Five team members have come to watch the PyeongChang Games, which has given them added incentive to achieve their goal in four years’ time, as well as another unforgettable experience — seeing snow for the first time.
They are unlikely to forget the below-freezing temperatures in a hurry, either. The mercury has dropped to -13 degrees (-25C) at times in PyeongChang, while the average temperature in Nairobi at around this time of year is 81 degrees (27C).
“We had our first snowball fight. It was remarkable,” says Ouko Opiyo.
“We experienced it together as a team and I’m really glad I got this chance, especially seeing snow for the first time at the Olympics.
“I was expecting to see something a lot more different to ice from the freezer, but it does look like something when you clean out the freezer.
“The first time we were outside that was seriously freezing, but when we went outside and came out that was better.
“Stepping outside the airport, it felt like a massive fan was turned on and the cold setting was set to completely low.”
Having watched a number of events and had their first brush with fame, the team will now return home to warmer climes, but their ambitions remain ice cool.