African skier's Winter Games dream
by Sylvia Smith for CNN
Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong wants to help Africans compete in winter sports.
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VAL DI FIEMME, Italy -- Top Ghanaian skier Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong has just bumped into a couple of gates as he tears downhill over a tricky steep slope that makes up the grand slalom course at this resort in the Italian Dolomites.
Kwame, who delights in the nickname "snow leopard", is continuing to train in the ski resort, despite not having qualified for the Winter Olympics in Torino. For a fast-rising ski star this is just a minor setback on a path that has led him to compete in championship races in countries as far apart as Andorra and Argentina.
The future points to the more ambitious goal of involving Africans comprehensively in snow and ice sports.
Born in Scotland, Kwame has spent most of his life in Ghana, Nigeria and Zambia. As none of those countries has snow, he had only seen the white, powdery stuff on television until he moved to Milton Keynes in the United Kingdom to further his education.
By chance he got a job at an indoor ski centre and took up skiing as a hobby, since employees were allowed to use the slope for free. He made rapid progress and one of the coaches at the centre suggested that he should take up the challenge of racing.
"It's entailed giving up my job," says Kwame, "and spending a lot of time away from my family. Not to mention throwing yourself down a hill as fast as you can over and over again."
At first, Kwame's family were opposed to the idea of abandoning everything for the sake of skiing. But this rather unemotional, determined man has attracted sufficient sponsorship to be taken seriously.
Although he has only one patron from Ghana, many European companies, including Easyjet, are keen to raise their profile by being associated with him.
From skis to goggles, poles to thermal wear, the only Ghanaian on the slopes is a walking advertisement for about a dozen sponsors. His results are now ensuring the media attention he receives now goes beyond mere novelty value.
"It's when I started performing well in races against people who had been in snow sports since childhood that I got respect," he explains. "Now I am hoping to get other Africans involved."
Kwame's meteoric rise to fame on skis has opened up the prospect of greater participation from unexpected quarters.
When it comes to the Winter Olympics an African team is usually a one-man effort, but Kwame want to build a real Ghanaian team. He is planning to take Europe's big name international skiers to his home country for a week to select the most promising young athletes to go to Europe for snow and ice sports training.
Sponsors are flocking to be associated with the initiative.
Kwame says that the same physical prowess that makes Africans record beaters in other athletic disciplines will enable them to excel in snow sports.
"It's no different," he claims. "Whether you run a hundred metre race or if you're spending 50 seconds rushing downhill on skis, you have to be fit and mentally prepared. Our superior muscle power and bone structure will ensure we succeed."
In Ghana the trials will be held on grass slopes and will also involve cycling and other athletic endeavours. Kwame hopes that poor Africans from a tough background will win through.
If they are successful and get a chance to make a new life in Europe, whole villages will benefit from the money they send back home.
At present the International Olympic Committee organizes a small nations camp that helps skiers from disadvantaged countries participate in a sport otherwise out of their reach. But it is usually just one representative from a country such as Senegal or Morocco who is involved.
Kwame wants much more than that. "The Senegalese guy and the Moroccan have never really lived in those African countries."
With the right funding he is planning to hold an African ski championship cup in Val Di Fiemme at the beginning of 2007, just before the world championships in Sweden. "I'll show the way by creating an Ghanaian team," he says.
This means persuading a number of African countries to invest in what at first glance seems an alien sport. "It won't appeal to everyone," Kwame agrees. "But my idea is to get European countries twinned with African nations. It would help international relations and get people who don't stand a chance of improving their lives back home to show what they can do with a bit of encouragement."
At the moment there is the Europa Cup, the NorAm Cup (for the U.S.) and the South American Cup. If Kwame gets his way, the International Ski Federation will set up a new official Africa Cup.
It is a way of getting around the problem of ensuring Africans qualify to compete at elite level in a high-profile event. "It doesn't have to be all downhill alpine skiing," Kwame says. "It can be figure skating, cross country or ice hockey.
"The idea is to give Africans a try."
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