Akwasi Frimpong’s Struggle to Represent Africa at the Winter Olympics

The International Olympic Committee is quick to tout its commitment to inclusion and diversity as “integral components” to creating “a better world through sport.” And yet the IOC is undermining these principles by denying Akwasi Frimpong, a Black skeleton athlete from Ghana, the opportunity to compete at the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics. (Skeleton is a winter sport like luge, except athletes lie on their stomachs, face forward.) The incident spotlights the chasm between Olympic word and deed. But there is still time to change course and allow Frimpong to realize his Olympic dream.

Akwasi Frimpong has lived a remarkable life. Growing up in Ghana in poverty, sleeping in a 13-by-13-foot room with his eight siblings and cousins, Frimpong was first raised by his grandmother. He told us, “My grandmother sold her kente cloth for us to be able to have food. She’d be able to sell that. Kente cloth is gold for these people. They save it just in case something happens. She worked for us, she sacrificed for us, and she inspired me—even from a young age—to never give up, believe in myself, and work hard.”

When he was 8, Frimpong emigrated, without papers, to the Netherlands to join his mother alongside his brother. Racism in the Netherlands was a constant obstacle. By age 16, he had become the country’s 200-meter sprinting champion, but, because he was not a Dutch citizen, his chances at advancement were hampered. He said, “Sport became my coping mechanism. It’s where I learned to be myself. I learned to show that I was more than an [undocumented] immigrant because in the Netherlands, they sometimes treat you like a criminal because of how they portray us if you’re an [undocumented] immigrant, even in the US sometimes, right?”

Then, after 13 years of living in the Netherlands, he was granted official residency; he immediately set his sights on running at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. This dream was shattered when he ruptured his Achilles tendon.

Still, Frimpong’s internal engine continued to thrum. He eventually moved to Utah Valley University, where he graduated cum laude in 2013 in marketing and business management. While in Utah, he joined up with the Netherlands National Bobsled Team, which was training there, and he excelled, nearly qualifying for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. From there he tried skeleton racing, and he qualified for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, making him the first Black male Olympian to participate in the skeleton event and the second athlete ever representing Ghana in the Winter Games. But Frimpong wasn’t done. His times kept improving, and he was on track to qualify for the Beijing 2022 Games, where he aimed to become the first African to win a medal at the Winter Olympics.

Enter Covid-19. While attempting to qualify for the Beijing Olympics at a competition in Germany, Frimpong, who is vaccinated, tested positive for the coronavirus and was forced to withdraw. But Frimpong is resilient, and skeleton is the perfect sport for his personality. “The adrenaline rush is amazing,” he said. “But what I love about it is it’s like my life story: a challenge.”

In previous Olympic cycles, Frimpong could have qualified for the Games through a continental representation quota designed to broaden participation for underrepresented continents. But, ignoring its own stated commitment to inclusion as well as pleas from Winter Olympics stars like US downhill skier Mikaela Shiffrin to improve diversity at the Winter Games, the IOC blocked this path. In a letter to Frimpong, the IOC stated that it had signed an agreement in 2019 with the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation that could not be altered.

Frimpong explained why these actions are so harmful: “I believe the quotas set in place for Beijing 2022 is a huge disadvantage to smaller nations and even more so to African sliders desperately working hard to represent a continent with 1.4 billion people. People will never understand the uphill battle we as African athletes in winter sport face just to participate. There is no level playing field when everyone else has almost a 100-year ahead start on their development.”

He added, “Each continent should be able to send their very best in each event as long as the athlete is qualified to safely compete in his or her respective sport. The people making the rules must make the changes now or it will be too late. Africa is watching.… What kind of message is the IOC sending? I believe they want growth and not complete regression. We can and must do better in the name of solidarity and the Olympic spirit.”

It also is worth remembering that the IOC changes its rules whenever it sees fit. It postponed the Tokyo Olympics for the first time in the history of the Games. It started assigning Olympic host cities 11 years in advance, whereas for ages there was a seven-year lag time. Moreover, the IOC’s “Qualification System Principles” for the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics state, “Each qualification system shall ensure continental representation across the respective sport.” Yet Olympic powerbrokers refuse to abide by the same standard for the Beijing 2022 Winter Games.

Rob Koehler, the director general of Global Athlete, an athlete-led group fighting for justice within sport, told The Nation, “During this Olympic cycle, athletes from developing countries have had their qualification standards changed for Beijing, excluding them from participation and proving the IOC solidarity model is a façade.” He added, “The IOC says they want to grow sport globally, but their actions clearly don’t back those words. Akwasi’s times have proven he is a world-class athlete and deserves the right to compete.” Frimpong has been active with Global Athlete and outspoken about racial equality.

The IOC often publicizes the sacred importance of neutrality. Olympic honchos refuse to recognize that in some contexts, abiding by ostensibly neutral rules means supporting the unjust status quo. If Frimpong is denied the opportunity to participate in Beijing, Africa will have zero representation in any sliding sports at the Games. If Frimpong is not competing in Beijing, it would be a clear and ugly message from the IOC about how much they value—or don’t value—diversity and representation.

One last point: We asked Frimpong about the legacy of Muhammad Ali, given that what would have been Ali’s 80th birthday was Monday. He said, “Muhammad Ali is a symbol of inspiration, but so [much] more…. a great example of somebody who voiced his rights and somebody who made sure that he was heard as an athlete, but also as a human being. We are humans first before we are athletes. We should not forget that. I’m definitely not in that caliber of Muhammad Ali and the time that he was in, but it’s about never giving up. It’s about creating change. It’s about creating awareness, about pushing, about leaving a legacy behind that people will respect, embrace, and will be inspired to follow. That’s what Muhammad Ali did, and that’s what I hope to leave behind as well.”

Frimpong walks in the footsteps of Ali, and his struggle does the champ proud. The IOC should recognize this and allow him to participate at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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