SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Sports) – Four years ago, former Utah Valley University track star Akwasi Frimpong captivated an entire continent by becoming the first African skeleton racer to compete in the Winter Olympics, representing the country of Ghana.
Frimpong was on pace to qualify for next month’s Winter Games before being hit by Covid. Now, there is a last-ditch effort to send him to Beijing.
Without the support of a nation devoted to Winter Olympic athletes, Frimpong has had to do much of the work himself.
“It’s financially super hard for me and my family,” he said from his home in Salt Lake City. “Sometimes we’ve got to decide are we going to pay rent, or are we going to go to a competition somewhere in Germany?”
Frimpong was on pace to possibly represent Ghana once again at the Olympics. With three qualifying races left, he was about to enter the top-60, a prerequisite for qualifying, when he contracted Covid in Germany.
“I did a rapid test, and that came back positive,” said Frimpong, who is vaccinated. “I made sure to do a PCR test as well. That came back positive as well. That was very devastating. At that moment, I knew that my chance to qualify was over. The past four years, it just felt like all that work had gone to waste over something I have no control over.”
In 2018, Frimpong was ranked 99th in the world, but was still able to compete in South Korea under the Olympic Continental Quota system. However, that was taken out by the IOC for the Winter Games in Beijing. So, former U.S. skeleton coaches Zach Lund and Brian McDonald got involved, writing a letter to the IOC urging them to allow Frimpong to compete.
“He is at such a disadvantage,” McDonald said. “We have a sport that is just not inclusive to African nations being able to participate on a level playing field. You look at the flag and there’s an African nation represented in the Olympic flag, and I think they should do everything possible that make sure they can get African nations who are qualified to compete in these games.”
Without Frimpong, the 54 African nations will have no representation in any of the sliding sports in Beijing.
“As an African nation, we are still 100 years behind compared to European athletes that started 100 years ago with this sport,” Frimpong said. “I have come super far.”
So far, there has been no response from the IOC, and time is running out.
“All of us have been waiting to hear something back, and we haven’t heard anything,” McDonald said. “We don’t know the reason for that. We did a follow-up letter recently. We just can’t sit back and wait for them to get a hold of us because by then it could be too late.”
But Frimpong did receive a call from the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation on Tuesday, and they are planning on discussing his situation on Wednesday.
“It’s not over until it’s over,” Frimpong said. “It’s not over yet, so I’m still going to train as hard as possible.”
McDonald and Lund, a former Olympian himself, are not asking for Frimpong to get a free pass to the Olympics. He has beaten some of the world’s top riders this season. They just want see Frimpong get a chance to represent the over one billion people on the continent of Africa.
“You have to see these African nations competing in the games, “McDonald said. “It’s just what the Olympic spirit stands for.”
“As long as the athlete is competitive, as long as the athlete is qualified and can safely get down, it’s important to include a continent like Africa with so many people out there fighting for a dream and a chance like this. All we are saying it this is a way to grow the sport and a way to make it inclusive.”
After he competed in South Korea in 2018, Frimpong said several African nations had people become interested in sliding sports.
“There’s proof that after I competed in the Olympic Games,” Frimpong said. “You had Togo start a federation. Gambia started a federation, Nigeria got more athletes involved in the sport as well. It shows what impact I’ve been able to have.”
“There’s a billion people out there hoping they can see Africans represented in the Winter Olympics as opposed to just the Summer Olympics,” McDonald said.