These Kenyans want to play ice hockey in the Winter Olympics

The Ice Lions had never seen snow before they arrived in Pyeongchang as sponsor's guests at the Winter Olympics. Getty Images/Alibaba

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- In the Panari Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, there's an ice rink.

It is a 1,400-square-metre rink, and it was the first in East and Central Africa, housed adjacent to the national park where black rhinos, cheetahs, leopards and lions roam.

Every Wednesday and Sunday, 16 men who are between 23 and 32 years old will meet at the rink. Each of them harbours the most unlikely of dreams: to make the Winter Olympics and compete in men's ice hockey.

These are the Kenya Ice Lions. Last Saturday five team members sat, stunned and exhilarated, in the stands of the Gangneung Hockey Centre, watching the Canada women play their Russian counterparts. Earlier in the day, they saw snow for the first time. They had only seen their sport on television before, snaffling up what they could from social media, turning to YouTube to watch videos of stars, absorbing the NHL.

Meet Benard "Ben" Azegere, and Robert Ouko Opiyo. They have been flown over to Pyeongchang by Alibaba, who feature their Olympic aspirations in their "To the Greatness of Small" campaign. As these Games have already proven with Pita Taufatofua, the Tongan flag bearer, and Akwasi Frimpong, the Ghanaian in the men's skeleton, the Winter Olympics is a place where outlandish dreams become a reality. They are steadfast in their wish to come here, having overcome ridicule and doubt through love of the sport.

"The ice rink is a place of solace for me," Opiyo said. "When you get on the ice and you go around the rink, you forget about all the stresses that's happening out in the world. It's just you and the ice."

His day job is in media coordination; he travels two hours each way to the rink. A self-professed bookworm, he was a student in Malaysia and went to the rink there. One of the national team players invited him to buy a pair of boots, he tried out for the team, but then returned to Nairobi. In 2014, on Azegere's wishes, he joined the team.

Azegere works at the ice rink. He remembers the first time he saw ice hockey, in the Vancouver Olympics. "It was like they were moving on glass ... I imagined ice to be like the mountains.

"The first time I stepped on ice, it was tricky. It was like walking on a soapy floor, so to get your foot in is tricky, I had some falls at first but I told myself, it's all in your mind ... you can do this. And then I was able to skate."

There are scars above both of his eyes. "It wasn't easy in the beginning," Azegere smiles. "We started without equipment. I got an elbow injury early on, knee, even on my forehead, you can see one. I was learning how to do the hockey stop .... I kept on trying, not working, not working but the moment I did it perfectly, I was so excited I forgot to pull myself up, so the puck landed on me."

When he returned home with blood leaking from the two cuts, his family were aghast. "They ask me 'Do you want to die? You are young'. But I'm like, 'No, it was just normal'. They say 'We still need you, there's a lot to do, there are safe things you can do'. I told them no. They try very hard not let me go to the ice, but I sneak back."

Equipment was hard to come by, it's still a first-come, first-serve basis in training -- if you are late, you will likely have ill-fitting pads or gloves. They have never had a full set of equipment. The community started to hear about these ice hockey hopefuls. People from the embassy -- from the United States, Slovakia or other ice hockey-loving countries -- brought them back equipment.

Bruce Strachan, from New York, and Tim Colby, from Ottawa, both live in Nairobi and had played ice hockey back home. They taught them how to shoot from long range and the ever-elusive hockey stop.

Then there were the external, visual motivators. Opiyo frequently turns to an inspiration video from U.S. women's skeleton slider Noelle Pikus-Pace, who talks about how she went through injury heartbreak in 2006, then missed out on qualification in 2010, but finally win silver at Sochi 2014. It focuses on her motivation to achieve her dream.

"Before we came here, I'd go through that talk, reminding myself that for the past 10 years I was asking myself 'is this really worth it?' I'd be carrying around this stick, leaving aside my family and friends, is it really worth it?" Opiyo said.

Azegere remembers one game from 2014 which set alight the ice hockey fire in him once again. "I remember in Sochi there was this game between Russia and Canada. Two powerhouses," Azegere said.

"You can imagine two big giants coming together. So back home there's a saying in Swahili: 'When two bulls lock horns, it's the grass that suffers the most'. In this case, the ice was on fire. That was a great moment for me."

It was two years ago, sandwiched in the middle part of the four-year Games cycle, Azegere reminded the team about their Olympic dream. Motivation was not ever-present, it did get hard. Some of those around Robert question his desire, saying it "is a white man's sport". They thought it was not really worth it, on top of the four-hour round-trip journey, and the money spent.

But like with Pikus-Pace, he turned to others for inspiration.

"I saw this post on social media and on one of the walls in a training ground there was a Michael Jordan poster; it went along the lines of 'I don't come here for three hours just to know what sweat tastes like'. I haven't been going to the ice rink for a few hours for nothing. The end goal is to be in the Olympics, have an ice hockey team and have something for my kids in the future."

The Alibaba campaign has given them renewed hope. "It changed everything; our dreams have been rejuvenated, we have more energy to face the future," Azegere said. They were hugely popular in Pyeongchang, one of those unlikely stories.

They travelled back to Nairobi feeling their Olympic dream was closer than ever. They were split between supporting Canada and the Russians, they traded flags with supporters, mementos to take home. But they won't settle for mere memories of being just fans and observers.

"This is a dream come true, it is a big event. Six years ago, people were laughing at us," said Azegere. "Dribbling the puck was tricky; they thought we were making fools of ourselves, and should go back and play rugby or football and have an easier life. But we believe in ourselves. We can get here, I can play in any team.

"We don't just want to watch. We want to participate. We will do it."