/ 8 September 2020

How Chadwick Boseman inspired Africa’s first black skeleton racer

Previews Winter Olympics Day 2
Akwasi Frimpong of Ghana practices during Men's Skeleton training ahead of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Olympic Sliding Centre on February 7, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

While diving headfirst on a brakeless sled, high on aerodynamics, doing 80 miles per hour on PyeongChang’s frozen ice track at the 2018 Winter Olympics, Akwasi Frimpong pondered the significance of Chadwick Boseman and his portrayal of the Black Panther.

“When I was competing, a lot of people said we have our own hero. King T’challa on ice. They talked about how important representation was,” said Frimpong, in an interview with the Mail & Guardian.

It was a comparison that Frimpong — only the second-ever winter Olympian from Ghana, and the first black African in Skeleton — welcomed.

Inspired by Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of King T’Challa in ‘Black Panther’, Akwasi Frimpong set out to make his look, and impact, rich, black and cross-cultural.

Yun Sung-Bin, the South Korean athlete who went on to win the men’s skeleton event, competed in a bodysuit inspired by Iron Man. This, said Frimpong, “represented the Westerners”. His was going to be different.

The 2018 winter games was something of a milestone for African athletes, who competed for the first time in the sports of Bobsled and Skeleton. Frimpong — who grew up as an immigrant in The Netherlands — was representing Ghana, and that was evident in his look: a kente-inspired bodysuit in yellow, green and red, which matched his sculpted physique.

It’s Wakanda magic

The winter games coincided with the release of the movie Black Panther, which started lots of conversations about the representation of black and African culture. Frimpong took the film’s message, and adapted it for the ice.

“I did understand the message of the black people and people from Africa and what they wanted to see. They were really happy that I was wearing a Ghana outfit, obviously, because I represented that, right? But I knew that after the 2018 Olympic Games, I wasn’t just there anymore to represent the 20-million people. I wanted to represent 1.2-billion people and that’s where the story of the Hope of a Billion comes in,” he said.

The success of Black Panther was unanticipated. It smashed box-office records, and won big at awards. It also marked a huge culture shift, proving that a predominantly black cast could attain insurmountable heights.

Boseman was at the fore of this cultural shift. Director Ryan Coogler has revealed how much he influenced the movie, such as demanding that actors be allowed to speak in African accents. And this, in turn, influenced other black creators — including Frimpong.

After the Olympics, he commissioned designer Matt Millette and Jordon Bourgeault, an airbrush artist, to create a Black Panther-inspired suit for competition.

The suit is sleek, all-black and textured — much like the super-hero outfit worn by Boseman in the film. The helmet is modelled on King T’Challa’s mask. Like Boseman’s portrayal of Black Panther, Frimpong’s image was rich, black and cross-cultural.

Rest in power

Chadwick Boseman passed away last Saturday, at the age of 43. Frimpong heard the news at his base in Utah. He had been battling colon cancer since 2016.

“I was devastated all day, all night. I still am to this day,” said Frimpong. “But at the same time too, he has given me so much strength. He has given me so much more. The fact that he was able to do that for at least four years and for you to continue to give himself to society, to people, that shows what it means to be kind and to have compassion over judgment and, you know, love over hate and light over darkness.” 

Frimpong was planning to commission a new suit to compete in later this year. But he has decided to pay tribute to Boseman by continuing to slide in his Black Panther suit.

Currently ranked 75th in the world, Frimpong is only getting better. In February, he became the first African to win an elite-level skeleton trophy — despite arriving at the competition with a broken sled, a defective helmet and in the less than peak physical condition. He has set his sights on becoming the first African winter Olympics medallist at the 2022 games.

To achieve this, he needs a new sled, more sponsors, and access to top-end medical facilities and coaching. These are all the bare minimum for his competitors, but Frimpong has to work harder. “I have to keep pushing. Like Chadwick, I have no excuse. I have no excuse to keep giving it my all.”

This article appeared on The Continent, the new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.