/ 13 February 2022

Akwasi Frimpong: Ordeal of an African winter athlete

Topshot Skeleton Oly 2018 Pyeongchang
‘Black Panther’: Scrapping the continental quota means Akwasi Frimpong did not return to the Olympics this year. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty)

Akwasi Frimpong is not in Beijing. Ghana and Africa’s leading skeleton athlete missed out at this year’s Winter Olympics after a four-year-long preparation was sabotaged by a positive Covid-19 result, along with a controversial decision to scrap the continental representation quota in 2019 – meaning that Africa received no guaranteed spots. The quota had been designed for inclusion of underrepresented continents in winter sports, a white-dominated terrain.

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

At 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 sight will not be repeated this year, thanks to the rule changes.

Frimpong’s coaches sent letters to the International Olympic Committee and the sport’s governing federation to appeal the policy change, but that proved futile.

Frimpong is back at home in Utah, in the company of his wife and two daughters, cheering on the six African athletes in Beijing. The Continent caught up with the Black Panther to relive the thrills of PyeongChang 2018 – and the hurdles he has experienced since.

What does it feel like being at the Olympic Village? What was your experience there, especially in a sport like skeleton racing, where you don’t have teammates?

It’s wonderful being in that atmosphere with such wonderful athletes. And to see other flags of different countries but very especially seeing African flags; Ghana flags, Nigeria flags, Eritrea flags. So I think it really makes it extra special when you feel like you are there, but your brothers and sisters are also there.

The opening ceremony was very emotional. Before we entered the stadium, we were outside in the dark, holding our flags up high, and then we enter and all the lights go on, like you see on TV. People just gracefully shouting, cheering, applauding, lights shining…

What advice would you give the athletes representing Africa in Beijing, especially how they might go about navigating an essentially white-dominated event?

I think that the best advice I have for them is to go out there and to enjoy the experience. They have worked hard for it. They have been moving mountains and as I know, as an African athlete, the uphill battle to be able to just qualify, to participate is very hard. Yes, we are 50 to a 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 efforts.

Sometimes it’s a little bit tough for the African athlete when there’s pressure coming at you to, “Go and win gold! Don’t come back home without gold” – and then when a result comes through, then right away it’s, like, “What has he won? What has he done? He went there, he came last. Why is the government spending lots of money on him?”

You get a lot of these kinds of things but you have to look past that. People don’t always understand how far we’ve come to even just make it. [If they did] they would be praising us.

What do you make of the decision to scrap 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 rankings, and now I can’t go. I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to qualify outright due to Covid, but on top of that, it’s sad that I didn’t have another route through continental representation. I feel broken about the situation. I think they missed an opportunity to showcase African athletes such as myself.

I have a vision of seeing 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 that look like me compete in winter sports, and I was really hoping to see more African athletes at the 2022 Olympics. But we are half of what we had in 2018.

We’re overlooked. We don’t have a seat at the table. Who is sitting at the table to represent Africa? Nobody.

So, I can’t stay silent anymore – there’s nobody else speaking up. I don’t think I’ll do myself any honour if I continue to represent the continent without standing up for the continent.

Winter sports are so expensive to participate in. Do you get enough support and funding? 

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

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

Cocoa from Ghana supported me in 2018, a couple of months before the Olympic Games when they heard more about me. I’m super grateful that they supported me because it definitely helped out in the last couple of months for qualification. The Ghana Olympic Committee took a while but I did receive the IOC Olympic solidarity scholarship through the Ghana Olympic Committee. So, the IOC pays but Ghana is the one that approves it. I got that like the year before the Olympics.

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

The short film is really important to show the things that I’ve been through as an African child having a dream — in this case, the Olympic dream. It’s important for me to share the legacy and my hope for Africa. My hope for my dreams, trying to inspire the next African child to dream big regardless of where we come from. Regardless of our setbacks. Regardless of the lack of all the things we don’t have that you normally would need to be able to achieve success but it is possible to achieve success. It shows my childhood and the experience that I had in my childhood in Ghana but definitely also the advice my grandmother gave me to never give up, to really believe in myself and to never give up. I think that message has always stood very strong in my identity and in everything that I do. To push hard in what I believe and to not try to fit into the box, but rather come out of my comfort zone and succeed, knowing that it’s hard. Knowing that I can do hard things. Knowing that it’s not easy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Black Ice, a short film about Akwasi Frimpong’s remarkable career, is available to watch on YouTube. 

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