13 August 2008

Togo's first Olympic medal

To be successful at the Olympics, it helps to be big, communist or preferably both. No surprises, then, that China is topping the medal table, followed by the USA. Meanwhile, North Korea and Cuba are 11th and 24th in the medal table respectively (as of Wednesday morning). Peninsular rivalry probably helps in the Korean case: the South Koreans are third overall. Just imagine how good a unified Korean squad would be. Or not: the unified German team is now further down the rankings than either of the two Germanies used to be.

So how can a small country without a well-resourced sports academy gain Olympic glory? One option is to find one sport you're good at and stick to it. 3 out of Ghana's 4 medals (mostly achieved in the 1960s) were in boxing. Kenya and Ethiopia excel at medium- and long-distance running. This is generally easier to pull off in the Winter Olympics, however, where Austria, Norway and Ukraine turn their climate to their advantage.

The final option, therefore: go random. Find someone who is good at a sport nobody else knows about. This seems to have worked for Togo, where Benjamin Boukpeti has become a national hero overnight for winning bronze in kayaking.

I wondered what led him to take up kayaking. Did he pick up a paddle to navigate the rushing mountain streams of south-west Togo? Did he pilot a pirogue around the mangrove swamps of his country's coast? Does Togo have a national kayaking academy, the relic of an unusually random far-sighted development project or an eccentric colonial administrator?

A little research revealed that Boukpeti's mother is French and he started off training with the French kayak squad, but switched to Togo in 2003. The competition was tougher in France, he said and they were worried I was getting too old. In fact, in spite of his dual nationality, he has spent the last 8 years training in Toulouse and only visited Togo once, as a small boy.

In my view, this shouldn't stop Togo from celebrating him as a hero: after all, they have the benefits of winning a medal without the costs of training him. It's the perfect technology transfer. With any luck, his success will inspire other young Togolese to take up the paddle (or find another little-known sport to excel at). I'm planning a hiking weekend in Togo's Kpalimé region next month; maybe I'll be able to fit in some watersports at the same time.

1 comment:

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