Two underdogs of the Winter Olympics who have already won
Lanny Smith, the founder of Active Black, a sports brand, does not take lightly his new partnership with the Nigerian Bobsled and Skeleton Federation.
“When you look historically at what happened with the Olympics and brand sponsorships, you see the biggest brands in the world,” he said. “It’s something that most small and medium-sized businesses, most black-owned brands, don’t even have the resources to show our work on at this level.”
Actively Black has announced its role as the official outfitter for the Nigerian bobsleigh and skeleton teams for the Beijing Winter Olympics on October 1, Nigeria’s Independence Day.
The brand designs all the clothing the teams will be seen in at the Games in February, including the opening ceremony outfits and competition uniforms. Mr Smith, 36, said he wanted the looks to ‘pay homage to Nigeria, to the homeland’; the tribal Ankara print in the designs is part of that goal.
The brand also launched a collection of merchandise alongside the partnership, with white and green details taken from the colors of the Nigerian flag.
In 2018, the Nigeria Women’s Bobsleigh Team became the first African bobsleigh team to qualify for the Olympics. They then worked with Under Armor, before moving on to Actively Black.
“Actively Black is part of this industry of giants, from Nike to Lululemon to Under Armor,” Smith said. “We are an outsider trying to carve out a place for ourselves, and at the same time you have this team, this federation participating in a sport that traditionally you don’t see African countries participating in.”
Indeed, being from a country so close to the equator meant that the Nigerian bobsleigh and skeleton teams had to travel to Pyeongchang, Korea just to train.
“We were able to create space – against all odds – for Africans to be represented at the Winter Olympics like never before,” said Seun Adigun, 34, founder of the Nigerian Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation. .
The collaboration is also part of a larger trend where Olympic sponsorships are increasingly becoming a milestone for brands of all sizes, not just the usual athletic giants. Kim Kardashian West’s shapewear brand, Skims, was the official underwear supplier for the U.S. team’s female athletes at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
Also for the Tokyo games, Telfar sponsored and designed the Liberia team uniforms, which particularly inspired Mr. Smith. “Telfar, another black-owned brand that is killing her right now, was able to do something similar with Team Liberia during the Olympic Games last summer,” he said.
Mr. Smith and Ms. Adigun met at the University of Houston, where they were student-athletes. When Mr. Smith founded Actively Black in November 2020, Ms. Adigun continued her work. And as Team Nigeria started looking for another sportswear partner for the next Olympics after their Under Armor sponsorship ended, Ms Adigun offered the place to Actively Black.
Actively Black has tried to incorporate cultural change since its inception. “We’re really trying to even redefine the word ‘black’ and what it means and take away the negative connotations to really have something that is a sense of pride for people,” 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 of these companies come out with these promises that they were going to do this and that for the black community, and I felt like it was largely performative,” he said.
The brand is focused on clothing that “matches all the other mainstream brands we wear, but reflects our culture and is also primarily focused on reinvesting in our communities,” Smith said.
“We have 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 reinvestment, Smith added, includes hosting fundraising events for organizations like the Liberation Fund.
For Mr. Smith, this is just the start. “I hope this inspires other black designers and other black owned brands to dream big and know that there are no limits to what we can do,” he said. declared.