Akwasi Frimpong

He slept on the ground of his crowded home as a child, his grandmother working hard to get food on the table for nine grandchildren. Akwasi Frimpong grew up in a village called Kumasi in the Republic of Ghana, and while he aspired to a better life, he probably had no thought of becoming an Olympian in the speed sliding sport of skeleton.

Skeleton Olympic champions have emerged from only 8 countries in the world, including the US, Great Britain, Canada, Russia and Switzerland. Certainly, running full speed into an icy track of twists and turns, head first on a tiny sled, is not the first thing 99.99999% of the world’s population would try to do, let alone think, particularly in a country where the coldest it gets is about19 degrees Celsius.

And yet Frimpong defied the considerable odds, and has put himself in a position to become Ghana’s first ever Winter Olympian representing his country at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics in the skeleton competition. To become an Olympian, he has to qualify at the skeleton world cup in mid-January of 2018 by getting into the Top 60 in the world. If he does, he’s going to South Korea.

Perhaps Frimpong’s first big break was leaving Ghana at the age of 8, and move to the Netherlands where his mother had emigrated to. In a more developed economy with more opportunities, Frimpong was shaped by his coach at his junior high school into a track star.

His second big break was having Sammy Monsels as his junior high school coach, a man who competed as a sprinter at the 1972 and 1976 Summer Olympics. According to this article on Olympic.org, Monsels created a vision for Frimpong.

“It was Sammy who really instilled the dream of the Olympics in me. Within two months, I went to the Dutch Junior Indoor Championships and missed out on the 60m final by 0.01 seconds. That summer, I missed out on the 100m final, again by 0.01 seconds… I asked my coach what I needed to do to become a gold medalist. He spoke to me about self-discipline and it all started from there.

Frimpong went on to become the 200 meter Dutch junior champion. But because he was still an illegal alien, he could not benefit from any international competition. What if immigration would not let him back into the country? Competing overseas was too big a risk. And his illegal status stopped him from asking to enter any high school. Fortunately, there existed an institution that looked beyond Frimpong’s legal status – the Johan Cruyff Institute. Named after Holland’s (and the world’s) most famous soccer player, Johan Cruyff, this school is designed to develop the abilities of students, athletes as well as business professionals.

Frimpong’s third break was to have a neighbor who cared. The neighbor was a writer, and she wrote so persuasively, even explaining Frimpong’s illegal status, that the Johan Cruyff College took a chance on the Ghanaian. Frimpong enter the school and earned his school’s international student of the year award. The award was to be presented in Barcelona, Spain, but because Frimpong was too scared to leave the country, Johan Cruyff himself flew to Holland just to present the award to Frimpong.

Eventually, in 2008, at the age of 22, Frimpong became a Dutch citizen. He got an athletic scholarship to study in America at Utah Valley University, and dreamed of making the Netherlands track team for the 2012 London Games. But he was not able to qualify, hampered by an injury.

Entering the second half of his 20s, his dreams of running track in the Olympics was fading. But he got a visit from the Dutch bobsleigh team, and was asked to try out as their brakeman for a World Cup race in Utah. Frimpong showed enough promise that he progressed to make the Netherlands national bobsleigh team. Unfortunately, his results were just under the cut, and Frimpong missed out on the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

At the age of 28, failing to make both a Summer Olympics and a Winter Olympics, Frimpong could have ended his pursuit of an Olympic Games. And that’s when he discovered skeleton. And for some reason, this sport clicked.

I set myself the goal of becoming the first African to win a medal in Winter Olympic history. I knew it would take me four to six years to become really good, so initially my target was the 2022 Games. But when I started racing in 2016, I surprised myself. A lot of coaches said that I was sliding like someone who had been doing the sport for several years.

And so Frimpong is at the door of his long journey to make the Olympics. If he does qualify for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, he will be first black skeleton athlete in Olympic history.

 

Note on February 2, 2018: On January 15, 2018, he got his wish and is headed for the Olympics.

Advertisements

The above is a great video explanation of the venues of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. Below are a few of the fun facts I like.

The Impermanence of the Olympic Stadium: The PyeongChang Olympic Stadium, which will house 55,000 people (including me) is a temporary structure. After the Games, it will be dismantled. Apparently, the 1992 Albertville Winter Games were the first to decide that taking care of a Winter White Elephant was simply not smart economics, and the organizers of the PyeongChang Olympics thought similarly.

2018 pyeongchang olympic stadium
2018 PyeongChang Olympic Stadium

Winter and Summer Fun: The Alpensia Ski Jumping Center in the Taeback mountain range was originally planned as the site for the opening and closing ceremonies. Instead it will be host to ski jumping and the Nordic combined events in February. What’s interesting is that the landing area for ski jumping is about 100 meters, so the organizers thought that the space could be converted into a football stadium, seating 11,000, for the summer months.

Alpensia ski jumping and football pitch
The Alpensia Ski Jumping Center

Remember 2018: The Alpensia Sliding Center, which will house 7000 spectators to watch the bobsleigh, luge and skeleton competitions, has a snaking track that runs exactly 2,018 meters, so bobslieghers will never forget the year they glided to glory in South Korea.

눈내린 동계올림픽 슬라이딩센터
Alpensia Sliding Center

Desecration or Modernization: The Jeongseon Alpine Center is a series of new ski routes and structures built on previously virgin forest ranges on Mount Gariwang. As is explained in the video, this area was one of the few areas that could fulfill a requirement of a slope that had a virtual drop of 800 meters, and so the Korean Forest Ministry okayed the opening up of the 500-year old protected forest that is now the site of the alpine events. This development has been the object of ongoing protests regarding the sites impact on the environment, among other things.

Jeongseon Alpine Center

Alexander Zubkov (L) and Alexey Voyevoda
Alexander Zubkov (L) and Alexey Voyevoda of Russia team 1 celebrate on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Men’s Two-Man Bobsleigh on day ten of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Medals Plaza on February 18, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. Unfortunately for Voyevoda, Zubkov was DQ’ed.

After finishing 11th in the medal standings at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, with a total of only 15 medals and 3 gold medals, Russia made a commitment to do better in their home country for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. In fact, Russia, finished at the top of the medal table with 33 total medals, including 13 gold medals.

Flash forward to 2017, and the table has turned.

After a review of the McLaren report on Russian state-sponsored doping prior to the Sochi Games, the IOC on December 5, 2017, banned the Russian National Olympic Committee from its participation in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. This decision means that no official team can represent Russia, but individuals from Russia can apply to participate in PyoengChang as a member of the Olympic Athletes of Russia (OAR), assuming it can be shown they were not part of the Russian doping machine.

As you can see in these tables from an NBC Sports article, Russia has suddenly plummeted in the Sochi medal tables from first to fifth. In the current standings, the USA is at the top of the overall medal count at 28, while Norway takes the lead in gold medals with 11.

Sochi Medal Rankings Top Five

This may not be the final revision. The IOC could decide to move other competitors up the medal ranks to replace the disqualified athletes. While the possible revisions below are dramatic, they actually would not have any further impact on the top five standings, although Latvia would move up from 23rd overall to 20th, thanks to the addition of 2 bronze medals.

  • Biathlon (women’s sprint): Russian silver medalist, Olga Vilukhina, was disqualified. Vita Semerenko of the Ukraine and Karin Oberhofer of Italy could move up to silver and bronze.
  • Biathlon (women’s relay): Members of the silver-medal winning Russian team, Olga Vilukhina, Yana Romanova and Olga Zaitseva, were disqualified. Norway could move up to silver, Czech Republic to Bronze.
  • Bobsleigh (two-man): Alexandr Zubkov was disqualified and stripped of his gold medal, which was unfortunate for his teammate Alexey Voyevoda, who was not disqualified. In this case, Switzerland could move up to gold, while the US could end up with a silver. Latvia might win bronze in this case.
  • Bobsleigh (four-man): As three of the four members of the Russian bobsleigh team, Alexandr Zubkov, Alexey Negodaylo and Dmitry Trunenkov, were disqualified, again Voyevoda appears to get stripped of his gold without being disqualified. Latvia and the US could move up to gold and silver. Another Russia team could have taken bronze, but they also had disqualified members on the team, which opens up the possibility of fifth place Great Britain taking bronze.
  • Cross-country skiing (men’s 50k freestyle): As written in an earlier post, Alexander Legkov and Maxim Vylegzhanin were disqualified, allowing Russian country man Ilia Chernousov to potentially trade his bronze medal for gold, with Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway and Sergei Dolidovich of Belarus moving up to silver and bronze.
  • Cross-country skiing (men’s team sprint): Like the 50k freestyle, Vylegzhanin’s DQ results in the stripping of Russia’s silver medal. Sweden and Norway could move up to silver and bronze.
  • Skeleton (men’s): Gold medalist, Alexander Tretyakov, was disqualified, leaving the door open for Martins Dukurs of Latvia to take gold, and American Matthew Antoine to take silver. Another Latvian, Tomass Dukurs, finished in fourth so is hoping for a medal as well.
  • Skeleton (women’s): Bronze medalist Elena Nikitina was disqualified, opening the door for a new bronze medalist, Katie Uhlaender of the US.
  • Speed skating (women’s 500-meters): Olga Fatkulina, was stripped of her silver medal, which means that Margot Boer of the Netherlands could claim silver, and Zhang Hong of China could be awarded a bronze.

PyeongChang Olympic ski venue

I’ve decided on a Christmas present for myself – a trip to South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympics!

I woke up one morning a couple of weeks ago thinking – South Korea is only 2 hours away by plane, February is manageable workwise, and I’m a total fanatic about the Olympics – why not go?

So, I’m going. But I had to make some decisions based on information only on the Internet.

Rooms were hard to figure out. Nothing but guest houses with shared space, or really expensive hotel rooms seemed available. Then, Airbnb came to the rescue! I found a private room not far from the Olympic Stadium, and the hosts speak English!

Then, I had to see whether I could purchase tickets for the Opening Ceremonies. I know that ticket sales for these Winter Games are a little weak right now, but I thought that the opening ceremonies would be sold out by now. They weren’t! I secured my seat for the evening of February 8!

And finally, I had to buy my plane ticket, which was the easiest of the tasks. After I arrive in Seoul, I will take a train from Incheon to Jinbu Station, check in, and have a day to acclimate to the surroundings.

How cold will it be? Will tickets for all events be relatively easy to attain? How convenient is transportation between the various sites? Will I make further inroads in my understanding of the Olympic bureaucracy, and expand my Olympic network? Will the Games actually be exciting?

I look forward to answering those questions!

PyeongChang gold medal
The gold medal
At 586 grams (nearly 1.3 pounds), the gold medal to be awarded at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics will be the heaviest medal ever created for an Olympic Games.

The previous heavyweight champion of Olympic medals was the Vancouver medal of 2010 that tipped the scales at 576 grams, according to this article.

But more importantly, at least to me, the simplicity of the Korean medal design is striking. There is very little to disturb the surface, much of the text blends inconspicuously in the design, including use of native Korean alphabet letters that in its entirety spell out the words “PyeongChang Winter Olympics.”

PyeongChang Olympic medals held by hands

Textured like the bark of a tree, the surface of the medal complements the actual weight to give the athlete a sense of solidity. This may be top of mind for Olympians who have heard about the flimsiness of the medals awarded at the 2016 Rio Olympics. The intent, of course, is to make the association of the medal design with Korean society, according to the Korea Herald.

“Hangeul is the foundation and the soul of Korean culture,” PyeongChang’s organizing committee said. “Hangeul is considered the seed that eventually blossoms and bears fruit, which symbolize Korean culture. The trunk is the process of that development.”

Additionally, the ribbon that will allow the medal to hang from the neck of an Olympian will be made from a traditional Korean textile called “gapsa,” and the round wooden case for the medal is said to be inspired by traditional Korean architecture.

“I tried some new techniques and went through a lot of trials and errors,” medal designer Lee Suk-woo said. “I wanted the medals to represent the hard work and dedication of the athletes. And the finished products came out a lot better than I’d expected.”

PyeongChang Olympic gold medal and case

The fear is palpable.

As mentioned in a post previously, France, Austria and Germany are giving serious consideration to not attending the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea due to concerns of North Korean terrorism, or even North Korean ballistic missiles launched during the Games.

The aggressive tone of words exchanged recently between the leaders of North Korea and the United States have done little to calm the nerves of South Koreans, Japanese and Chinese alike, let alone athletes expecting to attend the Games that start on February 9.

So how do you solve a problem like Korea?

Well, if they join you, they can’t beat you.

Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik
Ryom Tae-Ok (left) and Kim Ju-Sik (right)

On September 29, Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik of The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, aka North Korea, performed well enough at the Nebelhorn Trophy competition in Obertsdorf, Germany, which also served as a qualifying event for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. As the New York Times explained, the pair took sixth place in the tournament, but “more important, they finished third among a subset of pairs from countries seeking five available Olympic spots.

In other words, they didn’t necessarily squeak in, or get favorable treatment to earn a spot.

While the final decision is up to the North Korean Olympic Committee to approve their entry to the Olympics, they have up till now funded the pair’s training in Canada, under Canadian coach Bruno Marcotte. It would be hard to imagine the North Korean OC deciding not to give the go ahead after training these promising skaters overseas, seeing them improve significantly from their top 15 finish at the world championships last year, to cracking what is arguably the top ten in the world.

If Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik and other North Korean athletes and coaches are in PyoengChang next February, that may put the athletes, coaches and officials of other countries at ease. The thinking of some is that the North Korean leader may be less likely to attack South Korea if he is cheering on his countrymen and women south of the border, according to the New York Times.

“It’s kind of an insurance policy to have them there,” said Ted Ligety, a two-time gold medalist in Alpine skiing from the United States.

“North Korea is my biggest worry,” Choi Moon-soon, the governor of Gangwon Province in South Korea, where the 2018 Olympics will take place, said in a recent interview. “It’s not because of North Korea making an impact on the Olympics, it’s that if North Korea can participate, then it will make a great contribution for our goal of hosting a Peace Olympics, and it will be a great selling point.”

Will other North Koreans qualify? Will the IOC and the various international sports federations ease up the standards to allow borderline North Korean athletes to compete? Will it matter?

anti terror drill in Tokyo
A police officer practices disposing of a bag supposedly containing an explosive during an antiterror drill at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground in Tokyo on Monday. Photo: KYODO

On September 25, police ran a simulation based on a scenario – what if terrorists planted a sarin gas bomb in an office building during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?

About a thousand people were involved in this massive drill to see whether anti-terrorist plans on paper have any founding in reality. The drill was held not far from where the new national Olympic stadium is being built in Tokyo. Some 800 people were evacuated from the area and a bomb disposal team, using a robotic arm, successfully removed a bag that was said to hold a bomb.

These kinds of drills are important to gauging feasibility of anti-terrorist plans and readiness of relevant security and safety groups. But when it comes to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games, which is to commence on February 9, there are nations that are beginning to think no anti-terrorist plans or level of readiness of security personnel that will comfort them.

Thanks to the belligerent talk and the test launches of ballistic missiles by the North Korean government in recent months, France and Austria are saying they may turn down their invitation to the upcoming Winter Games, as quoted here.

  • We will never put our team in danger. If it gets worse and we do not have their security confirmed, our French team will stay here. – Laura Flessel, Sports Minister of France.
  • If the situation gets worse and the security of the athletes is no longer guaranteed, we will not go to South Korea. – Karl Stoss, the head of Austrian Olympic Committee.

Germany is also reportedly mulling a decision to not send their athletes to South Korea.

Cowboys Cardinals Football
Dallas Cowboys players coaches and owner protesting on September 24

After building for over a year, the National Football League in America is being swept up in a wave of peaceful protests, as players, coaches, and in some cases, owners, are finding ways to silently protest what they believe to be an insensitivity to the issues of race, sparked by comments made in September by the President of the United States.

Referring to an athlete who gets on one knee during the playing of the American national anthem, the President said that such an athlete “disrespects our flag,” and is a “a son of a bitch” who should be fired.

When asked on September 25 at a press conference if the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) would support similar protests in at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, USOC CEO, Scott Blackmun, answered in a way that symbolizes the challenge of protesting at the Olympics.

I think the athletes that you see protesting are protesting because they love their country, not because they don’t. We fully support the right of our athletes and everybody else to express themselves. The Olympic Games themselves, there is a prohibition on all forms of demonstrations, political or otherwise. And that applies no matter what side of the issue you’re taking, no matter where you’re from. … But we certainly recognize the importance of athletes being able to express themselves.

Scott Blackmun

Blackmun’s words are sympathetic regarding an athlete’s right to express views that are deeply personal and important to them. But he does say that the Olympics prohibits “all forms of demonstrations, political or otherwise.” In other words, we respect your right to protest peacefully. But you need to respect the IOC or a National Olympic committee’s right to kick you out if you do so.

In 1968, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who famously stood with gloved hands raised in fists on the medal podium after their gold and bronze medal victories in the 200 meter finals, were consequently forced to leave the Olympic venue.

In 1972, Americans Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett, protested in their own way by standing nonchalantly on the medal stand while the American anthem was playing. Their perceived disrespect resulted in their suspension from further participation at the Munich Olympics, and subsequently in the US team failing to field a 4×400 relay team, an event they were favored in.

Collett explained in 1992 his actions in 1972 in a way that likely reflects the feelings of many athletes who are linking arms, removing themselves from the field or kneeling during the playing of the American national anthem:

I love America. I just don’t think it’s lived up to its promise. I’m not anti-American at all. To suggest otherwise is to not understand the struggles of blacks in America at the time.

Indianapolis Colts protesting
Indianapolis Colts protesting on September 24

South Korea Koreas Tension

Tensions between North Korea and South Korea are high. With multiple missile tests in 2017, North Korea is believed to have the capability to drop nuclear bombs on South Korea and Japan today.

The symbolic and real divide between North and South is the demilitarized zone, aka the DMZ – a 4-km wide no-man’s land that serves as a buffer between highly armed military forces on both sides. Families have been reunited through this land route from North to South. But in the times when athletes travel to events where both North and South Koreans compete, they have done so by sea or by air. Most recently, a South Korean women’s soccer team went to North Korea, and a North Korean women’s hockey team went to South Korea for respective tournaments.

When the PyeongChang Winter Games commence in February, 2018, North Korean athletes will walk through the DMZ for the first time, according to Lee Hee-beom, head of The PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games (POCOG).

South Korea will welcome North Korea and when they decide to come, the South Korean government will allow them to come by road. And when they have supporting teams, the (South) Korean government will allow them to come by ship. All nations are very welcome, including North Korea and Russia. We want it to be the peace games.

No North Koreans have yet qualified for the PyeongChang Games, so it likely would not be a parade of athletes marching through the DMZ. But as Lee has said, the optics are the key. “Symbolically, to maintain peace in the Korean peninsula, their participation is very important, and for the success of the Olympic Games.”

I don’t know what it is like at the DMZ. But in June, 1985, I walked through a highly secured border checkpoint separating East and West Berlin, a place known then as Checkpoint Charley on the West Berlin side. I remember white walls and towers, military men with machine guns, and deathly silence. As a typical 22-year-old wise-cracking New Yorker, who liked to joke about everything, I found myself in a state of intense suppression, as I see in my diary of that time.

Checkpoint Charley on the eastern side is hardly intimidating in appearance, but you feel the intensity of the situation. You can’t take pictures, and for me the hardest part, you keep your snide remarks to yourself. There is dead silence as you walk through the cement corridors. A single watchtower glances at the grounds, but the electricity of the moment prevented me from snapping a noisy picture. The guard inside the customs office joked with Fenz, and that helped ease the tension, but the sensation of freedom was never so exhilarating when you realized that you were through. Violently spattered with graffiti, the wall (on the West Berlin side) remains a moving testament to the shackled human soul.

The Wall 3
Roy after walking through Checkpoint Charley to West Berlin and freedom

Pyeongchang NBC logo

We live in a 24/7 always on world. When NBC delayed broadcast of premier sporting events at the Rio Olympics, so that they could present them during prime time in the evenings, their strategy backfired for many. After all, in today’s world, people can learn of the results instantly.

NBC recently announced that for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in early 2018, all broadcasts will be live, no matter the time in the US.

“That means social media won’t be ahead of the action in any time zone, and as a result, none of our viewers will have to wait for anything,” Jim Bell, president for NBC Olympics production and programming, said in a statement. “This is exciting news for the audience, the advertisers and our affiliates alike.”

Since South Korea will be 14 hours ahead of the East Coast of the United States, if an ice hockey match starts at 8pm in Korea, then New Yorkers can watch it real time, but they’ll have to be up at 6 am to do so. Of course, if you’re a big hockey fan, trying to avoid hearing the score for another 12 hours before watching it prime time would be a pain in the neck, if not impossible.

This may actually be ho hum news for most people.

But in 1964, the prospect of broadcasting the Tokyo Olympics live to other continents was an exciting thought.

NHK camerman 1964 Tokyo Olympics
NHK camerman at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics
Live broadcasts in 1964 were not new. The 1936 Berlin Olympics were shown live on German television. The 1960 Rome Olympics were the first to be broadcast live across Europe. But, according to John Slater of Western Carolina University, Japan wanted the 1964 Tokyo Olympics to be the first broadcast live to another continent.

Slater wrote in this abstract that members of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee wanted the Tokyo Games to be known as the Technology Games. And so they contacted the American government in Washington D. C. if they would be willing to adapt American communication satellites designed for telephone communications to relay television signals. American officials also thought it would be very cool to be the first Games to broadcast signals literally across the globe.

NHK, the Japanese Broadcasting Corporate, built a transmitter in Japan, and the US Navy made modifications to a communications facility in California, and NASA which operated the satellite Syncom II, moved its orbiting location from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And when they tested the ability to send visual and audio television signals from Japan to North America real time, it worked! But as Slater wrote, NBC, which owned the broadcast rights in the United States, got very defensive.

The U.S. Department of State coordinated the use of the necessary radio frequencies. The system worked, and the Communication Satellite Corporation offered to make satellite time available. Both CBC and the European Broadcasting Union signed up for an hour a day, at a cost of U.S. $150 a minute.

But NBC chose to protect its investment in exclusivity. It got hung up on NASA’s policy that programs sent via experimental satellites should be made freely available to all competing media. In the end, only the opening ceremonies were televised live in the United States, and then only in the East. During the competition itself, U.S. viewers had to wait to see next-day videotapes of the Games, while viewers in Canada and Europe got the full benefit of live coverage. The Canadians had embraced the new technology, while the U.S. broadcasters tried to fend it off as a threat to their commercial interests.

NBC got an earful for promising live broadcasts, but actually providing tape-delayed shows in the evenings.

But that was 1964. Today, on the eve of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, NBC will be giving sports fans immediate gratification.