Two Winter Olympics Underdogs That Have Already Won

Lanny Smith, the founder of Actively Black, an athleisure brand, does not take his new partnership with the Nigerian Bobsled and Skeleton Federation lightly.

“When you look at historically what’s happened with the Olympics and brand sponsorships, you see the biggest brands in the world,” he said. “It’s something that most small to midsize businesses, most Black-owned brands, don’t even have the resources to show our work at that level.”

Actively Black announced its role as official outfitter for the Nigerian bobsled and skeleton teams for the Beijing Winter Olympics on Oct. 1, Nigerian Independence Day.

The brand is designing all of the clothes the teams will be seen in at the Games in February, including the opening ceremony outfits and the competition uniforms. Mr. Smith, 36, said he wanted the looks to “pay homage to Nigeria, to the motherland”; the tribal Ankara print in the designs is part of that goal.

The brand also released a merch collection alongside the partnership, featuring white and green detailing drawn from the colors of the Nigerian flag.

In 2018, Nigeria’s women’s bobsled team became the first-ever African bobsled team to qualify for the Olympics. They worked with Under Armour then, before switching to Actively Black.

“Actively Black is in this industry of giants, from Nike to Lululemon to Under Armour,” Mr. Smith said. “We are an underdog that is trying to carve out a space, and at the same time, you have this team, this federation that is competing in a sport that traditionally you don’t see African countries participating in.”

Indeed, being from a country so close to the Equator means that Nigeria’s bobsled and skeleton teams have had to travel as far as Pyeongchang, Korea, just to practice.

“We have been able to create space — against the odds — for African people to be represented in the Winter Olympic games like never before,” said Seun Adigun, 34, the founder of the Bobsled and Skeleton Federation of Nigeria.

The collaboration is also part of a larger trend of Olympic sponsorships increasingly becoming an important milestone for brands of all sizes, not just the usual athletics giants. Skims, Kim Kardashian West’s shapewear brand, was the official underwear outfitter for female athletes for Team U.S.A. at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic Games.

Also for the Tokyo games, Telfar sponsored and designed the uniforms for Team Liberia, which was of particular inspiration to Mr. Smith. “Telfar, another Black-owned brand that’s killing it right now, was able to do something similar with Team Liberia this past summer Olympics,” he said.

Mr. Smith and Ms. Adigun met in college at the University of Houston, where they were student athletes. When Mr. Smith founded Actively Black in November 2020, Ms. Adigun kept up with his work. And as Team Nigeria started to search for another sports apparel partner for the upcoming Olympic Games after their Under Armour sponsorship ended, Ms. Adigun offered the spot to Actively Black.

Actively Black has tried to incorporate cultural change from its beginnings. “We’re really trying to redefine just even the word ‘Black’ and what that means and to take away the negative connotations to really have something that’s a sense of pride for people,” Mr. Smith said.

His desire to launch the brand grew while in quarantine in 2020, as a racial awakening spread across the world. “I saw all these companies coming out with these pledges that they were going to do this and that for the Black community, and I felt like a lot of it was performative,” he said.

The label focuses on clothes that “match up to all the other mainstream brands that we wear, but is something that speaks to our culture and also has the main purpose of reinvesting back into our communities,” Mr. Smith said.

“We’ve been asking for a seat at the table for so long, and we just decided to build our own table and serve our people that way,” he said. Part of that reinvesting, Mr. Smith added, includes holding fund-raising events for organizations like the Liberation Fund.

For Mr. Smith, this is only a start. “I hope that it just inspires other Black designers and other Black-owned brands to dream big and know that there’s no limits to what we can do,” he said.

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