Akwasi Frimpong: ordeal of an African winter athlete

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Akwasi Frimpong is not in Beijing. Ghana and Africa’s top skeleton athlete missed this year’s Winter Olympics after a four-year run was scuppered by a positive Covid-19 result, as well as a controversial decision to scrap the continental representation quota in 2019 – meaning Africa received no guaranteed slots. The quota had been designed to include continents under-represented in winter sports, a predominantly white terrain.

Skeleton is a style of fast horizontal sledding on a sled that resembles a skateboard.

During the last Winter Olympics in PyeongChang in 2018, the sight of a black man sliding down the ice at breakneck speed was one of the iconic moments of the event. But the show won’t happen again this year, thanks to rule changes.

Frimpong coaches sent letters to the International Olympic Committee and the sport’s governing federation appealing the policy change, but this proved unsuccessful.

Frimpong is back home in Utah with his wife and two daughters cheering on the six African athletes in Beijing. The continent caught up with Black Panther to relive the thrills of PyeongChang 2018 – and the obstacles he’s encountered since.

What is it like to be in the Olympic Village? What was your experience there, especially in a sport like skeleton, where you don’t have teammates?

It’s wonderful to be in this atmosphere with such wonderful athletes. And see other flags of different countries but especially see African flags; Ghana flags, Nigeria flags, Eritrea flags. So I think it’s really special when you feel like you’re there, but your siblings are there too.

The opening ceremony was very moving. Before entering the stadium, we were outside in the dark, holding our flags high, then we enter and all the lights come on, as you see on TV. People are graciously shouting, clapping, clapping, lights are shining…

What advice would you give to athletes representing Africa in Beijing, specifically how they might go about navigating a predominantly white-dominated event?

I think the best advice I can give them is to go there and enjoy the experience. They worked hard for it. They moved mountains and as I know, as an African athlete, the uphill battle just to be able to qualify, to participate is very difficult. Yes, we are 50 to 100 years behind some of these European countries and Western countries [in terms of sports and athletic development and infrastructure]but that doesn’t diminish the talent we have – and we continue to give our best.

Sometimes it’s a bit difficult for the African athlete when there’s pressure on you to go and win the gold! Don’t go home without gold” – and then when a result comes in, then immediately it’s, “What did he win? What did he do? He went there, he arrived last. Why does the government spend a lot of money on him?

You get a lot of that stuff, but you have to look beyond that. People don’t always understand how far we’ve come, even if they succeed. [If they did] they would praise us.

What do you think of the decision to remove continental quotas?

Last time I was 99th in the world rankings and I was able to go. I’m so much better than four years ago, I’m 63rd in the standings, and now I can’t go. I was disappointed that I couldn’t qualify directly due to Covid, but additionally it’s sad that I didn’t have another route through continental representation. I feel broken by the situation. I think they missed an opportunity to showcase African athletes like me.

I have a vision to see more African athletes in winter sports. It’s something I carry in my heart. For me, it’s very important to be able to turn on the TV and see my brothers and sisters who look like me compete in winter sports, and I was really hoping to see more African athletes in the 2022 Olympics. But we are half of what we had in 2018.

We are forgotten. We don’t have a seat at the table. Who is seated at the table to represent Africa? Anybody.

So I can’t be quiet anymore – there’s no one else talking. I don’t think I will do myself any honor if I continue to represent the continent without defending the continent.

Winter sports are so expensive to practice. Are you getting enough support and funding?

Currently, I am the only black male skeleton athlete and the only African. I expect that if there are a lot of African businesses out there, I’m sure if they know more about our stories and are more interested, they will be able to support more.

I started the sport in November 2016. I had to prove myself. I sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door… I wanted to show seriousness and what I could do on my own to be able to go as far as possible, right? And so for me, the companies that invest in me, I wanted them to see what I’ve already been able to do on my own. It was my approach. I didn’t start a GoFundMe right away. I always made sure to do extra work, do whatever I had to do and then hope that people would be inspired, companies would be inspired, they would be interested in seeing my marketing value and my media value could also help as a business. I don’t think the support was there as much as it can be.

Cocoa from Ghana supported me in 2018, a few months before the Olympics, when they heard about me. I’m super grateful that they supported me because it really helped me in the last two months for qualifying. The Ghana Olympic Committee took some time but I received the IOC Olympic Solidarity Scholarship through the Ghana Olympic Committee. So the IOC pays but Ghana approves it. I had it like the year before the Olympics.

You made a short film recently. Could you tell us about it?

The short movie is really important to show the things that I experienced as an African kid with a dream – in this case, the Olympic dream. It is important for me to share the heritage and my hope for Africa. My hope for my dreams, trying to inspire the next African child to dream big no matter where we come from. Regardless of our setbacks. Regardless of lacking all the things we don’t have, you would normally need to be able to succeed, but it is possible to succeed. It shows my childhood and the experience I had growing up in Ghana but certainly also the advice my grandmother gave me to never give up, to really believe in myself and never give up. I think that message has always been very strong in my identity and in everything I do. Pushing hard in what I believe in and not trying to fit into the box, but rather getting out of my comfort zone and succeeding, knowing it’s tough. Knowing that I can do difficult things. Knowing that it’s not easy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. black icea short film on the remarkable career of Akwasi Frimpong, is available on YouTube.

This article first appeared in The continent, the pan-African weekly read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy hereand

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