Olympics 2022 -- Why African athletes are absent from Beijing sledding events

Akwasi Frimpong fought to the final day to get a spot in the Beijing Olympics skeleton field, but COVID-19 and a rule change conspired against him. Icon Sportswire

AKWASI FRIMPONG TRIES to stifle a cough as soon as he feels it in his throat. No, I can't be sick. I can't have COVID. Not right now, he repeats to himself. It's Dec. 29, 2021, seven days before the most important skeleton race of his career. Instead of heading to his training session, Frimpong gets in his rental car and drives from his Airbnb in Altenburg, Germany, to the nearest COVID-19 testing facility -- up north in Dresden. A 45-minute drive each way.

His team manager had tested positive a few hours ago. Frimpong's shoulders slumped when he got the call. He had been in close contact with the manager since they arrived in Germany on Christmas Day.

As he drives, he racks his brain. He remembers feeling chilly the night before, but he had chalked it up to jet lag, to generally being tired after training nonstop for 10 months leading up to this very moment.

He gets a rapid test, and pays cash out of pocket for a speedy PCR test. In a few minutes, the rapid comes back positive. He drives back to Altenburg and waits. A few hours later, they call with his PCR test results.

Frimpong, 35, has tested positive for COVID-19.

He looks up the rules in Germany. He's vaccinated, so he has to quarantine for five days. Until Jan. 3. That's two days before the race, which means he could still squeeze in the required practice time. I can make it, he thinks.

But on Jan. 3, after enduring five days of fever, cough and chills, he tests positive again. He would be unable to race that week in Germany. Worse still, he would be unable to qualify for a spot in the 2022 Olympics. Ranked 63rd in the world, he needed to improve his ranking by at least three spots to be eligible under the revised rules. Worst of all, Africa would have no competitors in the sliding competitions in Beijing.

His past 10 months flash in front of his eyes. He had been on the move -- to Russia, to China, to Canada, to the U.S. -- to train and compete, his wife bringing their months-old child everywhere he went so he could be around his family.

Now, he would have to sit in his Salt Lake City home and watch the skeleton race on TV.

THE WOMEN JUMP up and down, warming up their thighs. They fist-bump each other. One of them claps. They fix their helmets, clicking their visors into place. Then, as the crowd cheers, they push the bobsled as they run, gathering speed and momentum before they jump in. They slide down the track, the crowd getting louder.

It was the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, and the two women were Nigerians Seun Adigun and Akuoma Omeoga, the first African bobsledders to compete at the Winter Olympics.

The historic moment was possible because of a continental quota system put into place by the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) in 2016, two years after the Sochi Olympics. The quota system helped give nations with smaller Winter Olympic delegations, particularly in Africa, an opportunity to establish and grow their budding winter sports participation. That was how eight African countries -- the most ever -- competed at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. That was how athletes like Adigun and Omeoga, as well as skeleton racers Frimpong (Ghana) and Simi Adeagbo (Nigeria) made their Olympic debuts.

As sliding sports get underway at the Beijing Olympics, Africa will not be represented in bobsled, skeleton or luge. Eight African nations were represented by 13 athletes at the 2018 Olympics, but this year's Games will have only five African nations and six athletes -- all in Alpine skiing and cross-country.

"It looks like we've gone a step backwards," Adeagbo, 40, said.

For Frimpong and Adeagbo, there's sadness on a personal level. But also on a much larger level. It's about representation, about leveling the playing field, about giving athletes from countries that don't have a record of success opportunities they never thought they would have.

The Olympics are about competition, sure, but they're more than that, five-time Olympian and world-champion skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender said from Beijing. The Games are about bringing new opportunities to minority communities; they're about fostering curiosity among young kids to pick up sports they otherwise would not have.

"Akwasi has done so much for his country, for his sport and for Africa, and that's part of what the Olympics are about," Uhlaender said. "His inclusion does a lot for the world, for inspiring kids in Africa, [for kids] to see there are other opportunities out there.

"Akwasi should be in Beijing right now."

ONE THOUGHT POPPED into Frimpong's mind when he looked at a skeleton sled for the first time and realized he had to slide -- facedown -- on an icy track: How in the hell is a kid from Ghana going to do that?

It was skeleton week at the Utah Olympic Park in November 2015, and Frimpong, then 28, was baffled. Where do I hold? How do I get on? How do I steer? He had driven 13 hours from Arizona, where he then lived and ran a business with his wife, to Park City to try the sport.

For three days he watched and took notes.

On the fourth day, it was his turn. He knew theoretically how it worked. It was time to put that into practice. He tightened his helmet. He held the sled with his right hand and began sprinting, gathering as much speed as he could. Then he jumped on, facedown, on his butterfly-filled belly, using forward momentum to slide down the track.

He was certain there would be a "coffin waiting for him" at the end. Instead, when his run was finished, he let out a howl, feeling like he had just jumped into ice-cold water.

"I love the challenge of skeleton, because it's like my life's story -- challenging, exhilarating and wonderful at the same time," he said.

He had found his new mission: to become a competitive skeleton racer. And his goal: to compete at the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

Frimpong was born and raised in Ghana until he was 8, when he moved to the Netherlands, where his mother worked. There, he began his track career, going on to represent the Netherlands in sprints. He became a Dutch junior champion in the 200 meters, earning the nickname Golden Sprint. In 2008, he moved to the U.S. on a track scholarship to Utah Valley University. He had made an impact in the Netherlands and in the U.S. When he switched to skeleton, he wanted to do something impactful for Ghana, his motherland.

Nobody from Ghana had ever made the Olympic skeleton field. He could make history and introduce thousands of Ghanaians, particularly young kids, to the world of winter sports.

The 2018 Games were just over two years away, so Frimpong decided to set his sights on Beijing. Six years -- that would give him enough time to train, compete and qualify. Then, in 2017, during an IBSF conference in Utah, an IBSF member, on seeing Frimpong's "Road to Beijing 2022" jersey, stopped him to chat.

The IBSF had introduced a continental quota for bobsled and skeleton, he said. If Frimpong could compete in at least five races at three different tracks, he would have a chance to go to Pyeongchang in 2018. Frimpong competed in 10 races -- in the United States, Canada and Europe -- to satisfy the requirements.

Adeagbo's journey was a little different. She started training in skeleton 100 days before the Pyeongchang Olympics and decided to take a crack at the requirements. She made the cut for the Olympics after competing in six races on three tracks in the United States and Canada. The races did not have any qualification requirements for her to compete.

Not everyone saw Frimpong's and Adeagbo's journeys as inspirational. They were criticized online and in social media for taking spots from more "deserving" athletes. (The other skeleton competitor who benefited from the continental quota system was Australia's Jaclyn Narracott, who is back at the 2022 Games.)

Frimpong, Ghana's flag bearer at the opening ceremonies, finished last among 30 entrants; Adeagbo, Nigeria's flag bearer at the closing ceremonies, finished last among 20 entrants. They both made history: Frimpong as the first Black male skeleton athlete, the second ever Ghanaian Winter Olympian and the first Ghanaian skeleton athlete to compete at the Winter Games. Adeagbo became the first African woman to compete in skeleton at the Winter Olympics.

Then, in 2019, a year after a historic Winter Olympics, the IBSF, with the IOC's approval, eliminated the continental quota, which meant every athlete had to go through the process of qualifying based on rankings for the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

By then, both Frimpong and Adeagbo had been in the competitive circuit for at least two seasons. Frimpong stuck with skeleton, and Adeagbo switched to monobob, another sliding sport that will make its debut in Beijing. Even before the news, they had already begun preparation to not just qualify for the 2022 Olympic Games but be medal contenders. So when the IOC reversed the quota, they both believed their path to the Games was still navigable.

Still, something didn't sit well with Frimpong. The continental quota was important, he thought. It was a chance for kids in African nations to see role models at the Olympics they could then emulate. It was a chance for the best in the sport in that nation -- even if they were not the best in the world -- to be given an opportunity to showcase their skills.

So Frimpong sent emails to the IBSF, questioning the decision to remove the quota system, and explained why it was an important factor in leveling the playing field: to garner -- and retain -- interest in the sport within the African nations. After several email exchanges, the IBSF responded in October 2020 that it had "decided to not grant any exception or change of the rules."

He knew his fight was going to take time. In the meantime, he got to work. Back in 2019, he had met Team USA coaches Zach Lund and Brian McDonald. He had one goal: to improve his ranking from No. 99 to the top 60 so he could compete in the 2022 Olympics.

Together, they mapped out his 2021. Russia's skeleton team invited Frimpong to train with them for 10 weeks. Then, a three-week trip to Beijing to test the skeleton tracks built for the Olympics, after which came an intense five weeks of competitions in Canada. To finish it all off, he would compete in three races in Germany, giving him enough chances to climb up the rankings.

By the time he reached Germany, right before he tested positive for COVID-19, Frimpong was ranked No. 63. His plan was working. He was perfectly positioned, he believed, to qualify for the Olympic Games.

ON DEC. 29, the day Frimpong tested positive for COVID-19, nothing had changed. His emails to the IBSF had gotten him nowhere. But he was still optimistic. The IBSF and the IOC had until Jan. 24 to amend the rules, and given all the complications the pandemic had caused with the qualification process, perhaps there was still hope.

On Dec. 30, Lund sent an email to Thomas Bach, the president of the IOC, and copied other members of the IOC, the IBSF and several African Olympic committees, requesting reinstatement of the continental quota for the Beijing Olympics. When they hadn't heard back on Jan. 11, Lund sent another email. By this point, news of the rule change and Frimpong's fight started making headlines. On Jan. 12, IOC sports director Kit McConnell responded to Lund.

"The Olympic qualification process for Beijing 2022 was proposed and approved by IBSF in December 2019 and this was subsequently approved by the IOC Executive Board, including the athlete quota. Following this, and understanding that we can not increase the number of qualified athletes, giving an athlete a quota place which is not according to the qualification criteria would consequently imply the exclusion of another athlete qualified in the current qualification system. Accordingly, we regret to confirm that an additional out of quota place cannot be allocated to Mr Frimpong," the email read.

Lund responded on Jan. 14 highlighting the Summer Olympic Games' Tripartite Commission -- a committee that selects and invites athletes to compete at the Summer Olympic Games to improve diversity and universality. "We believe this decision goes against the IOC's universality principle," Lund wrote in the email.

The Jan. 24 deadline has since passed, and Frimpong has not heard back from the IOC. He is not in the skeleton field at the Beijing Olympics.

Adeagbo, who became the first African, man or woman, to win an international sled race in Winterberg, Germany, on Jan. 17, also missed the Olympic cut even though she was ranked 33rd. After a complicated method of selection -- which involves picking the top two athletes from each qualifying country and giving unclaimed spots to athletes in the top 40 for the 20-racer field -- Adeagbo missed by one spot.

Frimpong and Adeagbo are making it their mission to give the future generations of their countries the opportunities they wish they had had growing up. Adeagbo wants to take another crack at the Olympics in 2026, while Frimpong is still deciding. Two weeks ago, an 11-minute short documentary on Frimpong's life called "Black Ice" was released by the sportswear company On, and it has almost a million views on YouTube. As for Adeagbo, she has launched Simi Slays Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on helping marginalized woman athletes reach their goals.

"African athletes are capable of competing with the best in the world. Akwasi has shown that," Adeagbo said. "There shouldn't be this idea of people looking for a handout, but there should be an idea of accountability to the Olympics, to make sure that the Olympics is what it says it is, which is a movement that brings the world together through sport -- where every country can bring their best."