Simidele Adeagbo made headlines in 2018 when she became the first Black woman to compete in skeleton at the Olympics. Since her Olympic debut, Simi has continued to rack up accolades, becoming an Obama Foundation Leader, Yale University World Fellow, inspirational speaker and passionate advocate for women and girls .
Now she’s set a new challenge for herself: ensuring that female sledding athletes have the same opportunities as men. I hope you’ll be inspired by both her barrier-breaking career and her fight for women in sports.
By Hannah W. Orenstein
Simidele “Simi” Adeagbo has never been afraid to go first. In 2018, she became the first Nigerian Winter Olympian and the first African and Black woman to compete in skeleton, a sport in which athletes hurl down an icy track — headfirst — at speeds up to 80 miles per hour.
So anyone who has followed Simi’s career shouldn’t be surprised when she lodged a formal complaint against both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and her sport’s governing body, the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF), alleging gender discrimination. Someone had to call out the injustice; it’s not in Simi’s nature to wait around for someone else to take the lead.
The basis of Simi’s claim is that, unlike other events at the Olympics, sledding events aren’t divided equally between men and women. In sports like figure skating, slalom, hockey or curling, both men and women compete in the same events with the same number of qualifying spots. Sledding has different events for men and women. Men can race in the two- or four-person bobsleigh; women only have the monobob and two-person. Women weren’t even allowed to compete in bobsled events until 2002. The women’s monobob event was added in 2022 to increase participation.
And within these events, there are fewer spots for female athletes – the four-person men’s bobsleigh has 28 sled spots and the men’s two-person has 30; women have just 20 in the monobob and 20 in the two-person. That’s a total of 58 sleigh spots for men, 40 for women. Even though some athletes compete in both events, it ultimately means women have less of a chance of qualifying for Olympic sled races than men.
Athletes like Simi spend their whole lives dreaming of Olympic glory. Since pursuing the sport, Simi puts all of her energy into getting better at it. All that time training has paid off. She was the first African gold medal winner at an international bobsled race and is the most decorated Nigerian and African bobsled and skeleton athlete of all time. So it was especially disheartening to learn that she wouldn’t compete in this year’s Olympics because of an unfair rule.
Simi was used to breaking barriers in her sport – now it was time to break the rules. On March 8, 2022, Simi and her attorneys filed an arbitration request after she was excluded from the 2022 monobob event due to "an insidious and willful gender disparity in the number of sled spots made available for men and women."
“My plan was obviously to be in Beijing, but the irony was I felt that my presence was still viable because I took the steps that I took during the Olympics,” Simi recalls. “Although I had wished to be there on ice, I still felt that I was there in a very present way, in terms of driving change for this sport.”
She is still waiting to hear a response from the IOC and IBSF. As of our interview in April she hadn’t received any news. Even though the next Winter Olympics aren’t until 2026, Simi still hopes her complaint is a call-to-action for the rest of the sporting world to reflect on what it is doing to advance equality worldwide.
“What this is about is looking at the promise of the Olympics. The Olympic charter talks about equality,” Simi explained. “Discrimination of any sort is not to be tolerated at the games. It's really important to hold these partners and these stakeholders accountable to these laws and charters…I want to address for all women the fact that right now the sports are not living up to that across the board, not just in bobsled.”
If you look at the broader picture of the number of female athletes competing at the Olympics, it’s undeniable that there is progress. In Beijing, 45% of athletes competing were women. Tokyo’s Summer Games had 49%. The IOC has set a goal of equal participation in the 2024 games in Paris. Yet Simi points out that we need to dig into those statistics and look at individual sports as well. “Look beyond the surface of participation and…that’s where you see the gaps,” she explained.
If gender inequality was called out in sports the way fouls and penalties are, officials would run out of breath from blowing their whistles so often. Pay discrimination. Minimal coverage and airtime. Fewer perks. Sad excuses for training facilities. And then there are sports or events women weren’t even allowed to compete in. In July of this year, women will finally have the opportunity to compete in the full Tour de France.
This ever-growing list of grievances is why Simi sees this fight as one worth the risk. “I really hope that this becomes a landmark case. This is bigger than bobsled. All of us as athletes deserve the opportunity to reach the goals that we've set for ourselves,” Simi said.
It’s easy to say that Simi is inspirational. But as she pointed out to me in our interview, inspiration isn’t enough. She started out our conversation with a quote from a recent essay she had read by Malala in The Economist:
This, Simi explained, is the paradox for women who are trailblazers. “A lot of times, when people like myself are speaking out, people are like, ‘Oh, wow, that's so brave.’ And they give you a pat on the back. But that's not enough. You know, I'm doing this to drive change and I want to see change on this matter.
It requires a substantive response. It's not just about a pat on the back, you know, and saying, ‘We're brave.’ That's great. Thank you. But now what?”