For some here, these Olympics have been about medals. For Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, it is about beating three people in today’s slalom.
If he beats three, his sponsor, Paddy Power, will give him a Ł10,000 bonus. He thinks he can beat the Moroccan and his friend who skis for Cyprus, but the third remains a test of nerve, technique and sheer leopard magic.
Today, at last, is the day of the “Snow Leopard”. He has found the long wait frustrating; his mate on the one-man Ethiopian cross-country team, Robel Zemichael Teklemariam, has been demob happy for 12 days.
The Leopard — for so the Ghana ski team, also a one-man outfit, is known — has elected to fill his spare time doing media work. Home, for Nkrumah-Acheampong, is Milton Keynes where he learnt to ski on the local dry ski slope after moving to the Buckinghamshire town six years ago.
Here in Canada , he is a big name — he has given interviews to pretty much every leading broadcaster on the mountain. The minor ones, too. In his first few days, he was doing five or six media engagements a day; by the time he had done a fortnight here, he reckoned he had notched up 60 media interviews.
When he decided to give a formal press conference in the Whistler Media Centre, the press department told him that he had drawn a bigger crowd than Bode Miller.
The exposure has clearly worked. “It’s crazy,” he said. “People stop you in the street. One woman came up to me and said, ‘Can I touch you?’ I said ‘What?’ She said, ‘Can I put my hands on you.’ That was a weird one.” But this is not media-tarting for vanity’s sake. The Leopard has a plan. He wants to raise awareness, raise funds and build a grass slope in Ghana to encourage a generation of Ghanaian skiers. Or, as he puts it, he wants some leopard cubs.
“Do you come to an Olympics to go down a hill, pack up your stuff and leave?” he said. “Or do you leave a legacy? I want to leave a legacy, to get the next snow leopards on the Ghana team. We have started off with cubs and we are grooming them to be full-grown leopards. Once they can overcome the cold, they should be good skiers.” So profile is important. While the Ethiopians et al have been out there competing, he has been busy building a Facebook following. Kwame’s Army, he calls them.
So when, at last, he met The Times, he was exhausted, although not too much from recruitment. “The man from The Times can join Kwame’s army,” he said, generously. “Although you must start off as a private. If you want to be an officer, you must work your way up.”
The good news is that, a few days ago, he started to rein in the media work. His hours of sleep went up from five a night to seven and he became fully focused on today’s slalom race. So he is confident that he can beat the Moroccan. “He’s my friend,” he said. “One season, he crashed every single race. Before each race started, you could pick out where he would crash. I’ve told him I’m going to beat him.” And the Cypriot? “We have friendly banter about who will win,” he said. “He’s quite fast but I’ve told him I will chase him down.”
He knows these guys because the one-man teams tend to gravitate toward each other. “At most competitions, you see us huddled together,” he said. “I hang out with the guys from the Greek team, they are cool guys.”
The Greek team, to their credit, brought practice gates with them. When Nkrumah-Acheampong arrived in Whistler, he assumed that the Olympic organisers would have gates on hand for the skiers to practise with on the training slopes. But no, “so we have to ask other teams if we can jump in”. Most say yes. He practises a lot with the Greek and the Irishman. For Sochi 2014, he is going to be the chef de mission and bring “a younger, stronger leopard” with him to Russia, and their own set of gates, too.
To set a precedent for his cubs, he wants to be taken seriously. He shuns comparison to Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards. “I cannot wait at last to be standing on an Olympic slope,” he said. “The pressure is building each day. I am here with one aim — to do my best. And afterwards, I can roll around in the snow.” Like a true Olympian leopard.
Legends among losers
Eric “The Eel” Moussambani
One of the unlikely stars of the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Moussambani, a swimmer from Equatorial Guinea, had never been in a 50 metres pool before. It showed.
Abdul Baser Wasiqi Wasiqi
The Afghan came in last in the men’s marathon in Atlanta 1996. His time of 4hr 24min 17sec was an hour and a half after the previous finisher. Hampered by a hamstring injury, he was determined to finish; when he came into the stadium, the officials were starting to prepare for the closing ceremony.
Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards
Still synonymous with the Calgary Games in 1988. The ski-jumper/plasterer from Cheltenham had misted-up glasses and, by a considerable distance, the shortest jumps on the hill.
Jamaican bobsleigh team
The other stars of Calgary. They were the first Jamaicans ever in the Winter Games. They did not win, but they are preserved for ever in the film, Cool Runnings.
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