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Nation of Togo finds Olympic team on Facebook

In the tradition of the Jamaican bobsled team, countries that have never seen a flake of snow are sending athletes to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Case in point: The tiny West African nation of Togo is competing in the Winter Games for the first time, sending two young female skiers to carry the flag and race for the gold.

The fact that neither skier is Togolese may bother traditionalists, but the Togolese ski team is a fitting symbol of a world evolving away from rigid borders and boundaries.

Togo occupies a sliver of land on the West African coast, bordering Ghana. I served there as a Peace Corps agriculture volunteer in the 1980s, and it is (always) hot, tropical and about as far from winter as you can get. I never saw a sweater, much less a pair of skis, in four years.

Togo isn’t terribly well known in the U.S., either; many people assume you’re talking about a takeout restaurant.

Nevertheless, with help from social media, tiny Togo has managed to connect with two promising young skiers to become the only West African country represented among the 88 nations at Sochi.

French cross-country skier Mathilde Petitjean, 19, has a tangential connection, although she grew up in France. Her mother is Togolese, and her father is French.

Petitjean boasts a solid record in world skiing competitions. She has a Togolese nickname, “Amavi,” and said she’s proud to represent her mother’s home nation. Togolese Olympic organizers reportedly found her through Facebook.

Togo’s other team member has no family ties to Togo at all. Italian alpine skier Alessia Dipol, 18, is another rising young star on the international circuit. She will compete in the slalom and giant slalom.

Dipol skied for India between 2012 and 2013 but now has switched to Togo, becoming a naturalized citizen. She will get to carry the Togolese flag at the opening ceremony.

She also has taken a Togolese nickname, “Afi.” (The Togolese love nicknames; mine is “Komi,” and I’m proud of it.)

However improbable, this story is consistent with history. Togo has always been a crossroads, as different peoples have come and gone down to the Gulf of Guinea.

Many Carolinians may trace their ancestry to this part of Africa; it was Ewe farmers from the modern Togo-Ghana-Benin coastal region who successfully adapted rice farming to the South Carolina low country and contributed Ewe words to the Gullah language.

Much more recently, during my Peace Corps service, an Italian woman hauled in a gelato maker all the way from Naples, Italy. She and her Togolese husband set up a gelato stand just up from the beach in Togo’s capital, Lome.

Called “Glace Le Coco,” it specialized in traditional Italian gelatos and ices made from fresh African tropical fruits: starfruit, tamarind, wild mango. I’ve never tasted anything better, or colder, in my life.

We all love to yell “USA!” and wave Old Glory as we watch the games, but maybe the Olympics’ greater good is less about gold medals and more “Glace Le Coco.”

The Olympics brings together a world of different peoples and traditions. You never know what unexpected treasures will come from unexpected pairings, be it Jamaican bobsledders or the small nation of Togo proudly cheering for their two foster teens as they rocket down the snowy Russian ski slopes.

Meanwhile, new human groupings are emerging beyond country or clan. Both Petitjean and Dipol – or Amavi and Afi, if you like – have active and entertaining Facebook pages, and so does Faure Gnassingbe, Togo’s president.

In some sense, perhaps, Facebook confers a shared identity encompassing all three. (Gnassingbe, who holds an MBA degree from George Washington University, is the son of Togo’s former dictator. He recently won elections deemed “free and fair” by international observers.)

Postscript

After missing several Olympics, the Jamaican bobsledders will be back at Sochi, funded in part by contributions of Dogecoins, an online currency similar to Bitcoin.

No doubt this is another example of how the Internet is a slippery slope, but at least Facebook isn’t recruiting its own Olympic team.

Not yet.

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