PARK CITY, Utah (BVM) – Akwasi Frimpong is no stranger to overcoming adversity. It’s been present in his life since a child, and it has reared its head once again in a different form more than 30 years later.
Frimpong was born in Ghana and, after his mother left when he was 2 or 3 years old, lived with his grandmother alongside his brother and eight other cousins. One of Frimpong’s favorite memories from that time was Christmas Day, where he said they had “the luxury and privilege” of drinking a full bottle of Coca-Cola.
“My grandmother didn’t have much money to feed all of us well every day, so on Christmas, we had that luxury and it was really fun,” Frimpong said. “We slept on concrete floors as a kid with 10 of us sharing blankets and water would be dripping from the ceiling. It was tough, but my grandmother was a strong woman, hardworking and did everything that she could as much as possible for her grandkids.”
Frimpong’s mother left Ghana for the Netherlands and promised to return with a job and a better life for her two sons. She kept that promise and the family moved to the Netherlands in 1995 where Frimpong said he “thought everything would be perfect.”
“Maybe this time during Christmas we’ll have more than just a full bottle of Coca-Cola,” Frimpong said. “But life wasn’t that easy and that’s when I realized as a little child that life is never easy and that you have to work for everything.”
Upon arriving in the Netherlands, Frimpong and his brother were illegal immigrants. They were not allowed to attend school for 13 years, nor were they allowed to have a job to help support their mother who was working two to three jobs of her own to pay lawyers who could keep the family together.
Frimpong said that period of time wasn’t easy but he met some great people, and more importantly, he discovered sports which became his “coping mechanism.”
It was track and field that first caught Frimpong’s attention and soon after, it was him who was catching the attention of others. Former Olympian Sammy Monsels discovered Frimpong running, and winning, a relay and took the then-15-year-old under his wing. After a year-and-a-half of training with Monsels’ club, Frimpong became a Dutch junior champion in the 200-meter sprint.
“That’s where the whole Olympic flame and dream was lit in me,” Frimpong said.
After a successful career at Utah Valley University where he helped the 4×100-meter relay team break the school record during the 2010 Great West Conference Championships before graduating with honors in 2013, Frimpong made the natural transition to bobsledding with the Netherlands National Bobsled Team training nearby.
The essentials of track – speed, power and athleticism – directly translate to both bobsleigh and skeleton. Frimpong describes skeleton as “diving headfirst on your belly on a cookie-sheet sled.”
“You’re going headfirst 80-90 MPH,” Frimpong said of skeleton. “Just imagine you’re going on the freeway as fast as possible, headfirst and without things covering you (aside from a helmet). It’s basically like having five or six of your best friends sit on top of you. That’s the pressure that we feel when we’re going headfirst for about a mile long.”
Frimpong made history in 2018 when he became the first Black male skeleton athlete in Olympic history and just the second Winter Olympian from Ghana. He said he felt grateful for the opportunity to empower people from Ghana to get out of their comfort and go after their wildest dreams.
“That experience will never leave me,” Frimpong said.
Frimpong was hoping for that same experience again in 2022 — especially after he made more history in February 2020 as the first skeleton athlete from Africa to win an elite skeleton race sanctioned by the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation – but it appears that opportunity has vanished.
Made history for #Ghana 🇬🇭 winning my first international skeleton race during the 2020 USA Western Regionals in ParkCity, Utah. This win is for anyone that was ever told that their dreams are unattainable. Thank you to all my sponsors. #hopeofabillion #foreverliving @GhanaGas pic.twitter.com/iSbBUJ6I97
— Akwasi Frimpong OLY (@FrimpongAkwasi) March 1, 2020
Training since 2018 for the Beijing 2022 Games, Frimpong moved up in the skeleton world ranking to 62nd, just outside of the top 60 which is a prerequisite to qualify for the Olympics. He was in Germany attempting to crack the top 60 and qualify for Beijing when Frimpong, who is vaccinated, tested positive for COVID-19 on Dec. 29, 2021.
Forced to withdraw from his last three qualifying races, Frimpong’s standing outside of the top 60 eliminated him from qualification despite the fact that he qualified for the 2018 Olympics ranked 99th.
Frimpong competed at PyeongChang2018 thanks to the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) continental quota system designed to broaden participation for underrepresented continents. That system was dropped in 2019, and despite efforts from Frimpong, his coaches and Winter Olympic stars, the IOC has refused to change its stance.
Frimpong doesn’t want a free ride to the Olympics – and he likely would’ve qualified outright if he had not contracted COVID-19 before his final qualifying races – but he urged the IOC in a letter sent back in 2019 to make it difficult, but not impossible, for African athletes to qualify for the Winter Olympics who are already at a disadvantage.
“We are still 100 years behind European and some of the developed athletes,” Frimpong said. “There’s no level playing field if you keep making it almost impossible (to qualify). That’s why it’s very important to have the continental (quota) representation, not for people to just show up or a free pass, but to make it possible for us to represent our continent. That’s something that we’re fighting for.”
It’s a head-scratching predicament Frimpong is in. He qualified for the Olympics just four years prior as the world’s 99th-ranked skeleton athlete, but despite improving his standing by more than 30 spots, being Africa’s best and beating athletes from developed countries in the meantime, his chance at a return has been denied.
It makes things all the more frustrating when the uphill battle African Winter Olympic athletes face is considered.
“It’s funding, it’s lack of resources, lack of dedicated coaching; there’s just so much that comes into place that a lot of people don’t think about,” Frimpong said. “All the things that we even have to do as an African athlete to be able to even participate is a real uphill battle.”
Broken, but not shattered!
I gave everything to represent the people of Africa & underdogs all over the world, and in the end it was the fight that really mattered.
I thank all who fought with me. 🙏🏿
Best wishes to all athletes going to Beijing! Go & make your country proud 💪🏾. pic.twitter.com/FmIkTq9ULI
— Akwasi Frimpong OLY (@FrimpongAkwasi) January 26, 2022
Frimpong said he doesn’t know if his efforts will create change within the IOC, but he hopes at the very least that his message brings about awareness. As the Winter Olympics begin in Beijing this week, there will be a handful of deserving athletes forced to watch from home, and that reality doesn’t align with the Olympic mission.
“We are here fighting for the greater good; it’s the bigger picture and it’s more than me,” Frimpong said. “It’s about the next generation, it’s about inclusiveness, it’s about the Olympic charter, it’s about their motto of togetherness and I think they need to hold their bargain. I think they need to practice what they preach.”