Again they came to the Winter Games, and again, at first, it made no sense. Cross-country skiers from Algeria and Ethiopia? Alpine skiers from Morocco and the Cayman Islands? Capable of winning nothing, living incongruities all, they looked only braver—or more foolish—at Vancouver's Olympics once the risk became fatal. The luger from India? On Feb. 12, just after finishing his training run, he watched horror-struck as 21-year-old Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia followed him down the track, crashed his sled and died. The skier from Ghana? That night, flag in hand, he turned to his three-man posse before walking out for the opening ceremonies and yelled, "Spartans, are you ready? This is our time!"
This is an article from the March 1, 2010 issue
Who better to assume the vanguard? Twenty-two years after British plasterer and ski jumper Eddie (the Eagle) Edwards turned the phrase tourist athlete into a punch line, finishing last in both the 70-meter and 90-meter jumps at the Calgary Games, there was Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, the 35-year-old slalom skier dubbed the Snow Leopard. Born in Glasgow and raised in Accra, he began skiing six years ago at the indoor slope in Milton Keynes, England, where he worked behind the front desk. Competing in a leopard-spotted racing suit, he finished 67th in the slalom at last year's world championships. His own coach can beat him down the slope.
Problem is, Nkrumah-Acheampong has no interest in being a punch line. He began marketing himself as the Snow Leopard mostly to raise the money for training that neither the Ghanaian Olympic Committee nor sponsors would provide; he exhausted his personal finances to make his trip to Vancouver possible; he dismisses the Eagle's performance as a "merry-go-round kind of thing. Sports is about competition. The team around me understands that we are not here to joke."
The ranks of sham Olympians have thinned greatly since a series of embarrassments forced the IOC to beef up qualification rules in the early 1990s. Yes, dilettantes such as Hubertus (Prince) von Hohenlohe, who took time off from his career as Eurotrash pop singer Andy Himalaya to represent Mexico as a slalom skier in Vancouver, still exist. But most of the novelties, especially from first-time Winter Olympic nations such as Pakistan, Colombia and Peru, see themselves more as sports pioneers, revitalizing the Olympic ideal.
Nkrumah-Acheampong cites the hype-magnet Jamaican bobsled team as a role model. But Jamaica's progress after its infamous debut at the '88 Winter Games didn't end with the making of Cool Runnings: Six years later, in Lillehammer, its four-man bobsled team finished 14th—ahead of the U.S., France and Russia. For inspiration for the seemingly daft dream of building a Ghanaian ski program, Nkrumah-Acheampong could have done worse.
"Who's to say your dreams cannot come true?" says Devon Harris, one of the original Jamaican bobsledders. "Who's to say that a Ghanaian can never become a downhill skiing Olympic champion? It may take five, 10, 20 years—but it's possible."
Whether it should start at the Olympics, though, has long been a question for IOC officials, who are caught between desires to expand the Winter Games and to ensure their safety. Various federations, such as FIS for Alpine and cross-country skiing, set the qualifying standards for their sports at the Olympics. After the IOC demanded stronger standards after the 1992 Games, the parade of Jamaica-style wannabes dwindled; this year only Monaco and Liechtenstein brought tourist-quality bobsled teams to Vancouver.
"In the speed sports they try to ensure that those athletes have [competed] on a number of tracks over a number of seasons," says Christophe Dubi, the IOC's sports director. "That doesn't mean you don't have crashes."
Still, Kumaritashvili's death on a notoriously fast track renewed questions about the skills of those relatively inexperienced athletes. Dubi, in fact, heard news of the crash while attending an arbitration hearing for a female skeleton racer from the U.S. Virgin Islands seeking an exception to compete in these Games; the IOC opposed her entry and the appeal was denied. Meanwhile, Dubi says, several new countries seeking invitations to Vancouver had been rebuffed. "This is a question of safety," he says.
No one expects the Winter Olympics to shrink. The Vancouver opening ceremonies featured 2,631 athletes from 82 delegations—up from 1,737 and 67, respectively, at the '94 Games—and as an inspirational brand, the Games have few equals. Not long after Lillehammer, a captain in the Pakistani air force, Zahid Farooq, saw boys skiing near the snow-survival school in the Hindu Kush where he was based. The kids were zooming downhill on pieces of wood hacked from trees and attached to their shoes with rubber bands. Within a year Farooq had organized a tryout for a team of 16 boys—to share eight pairs of used skis—and turned away 500 others who flocked for a chance to ski for Pakistan. The best of them was a 10-year-old named Muhammad Abbas, son of a watchman. For their first junior competition, in Iran, the Pakistanis did poorly but finished above India. That was a sign. It wasn't until 2003 that Abbas had his first foreign coach, from Japan, and then for only 15 days. Money was always tight. The team tried to qualify for Turin in 2006 but failed.
Farooq, then 51, thought that had been his only chance. He wept. Then the Pakistani ski federation changed tack and added funding, and for six weeks in 2009 Farooq was able to take the team to train in Austria. Abbas, now 24, struggled, and Farooq was sure he had wasted his life. He read some Thoreau, rallied. Abbas began to ski like never before. In March 2009 he qualified to ski the giant slalom in Whistler. Pakistan, at last, was in the Winter Games.
"We just went ... insane," Farooq says, his eyes filling with tears. "We were hugging each other. On the Facebook my daughter wrote, 'I am sorry for all the times when I had doubts in my father about achieving this dream.' I know we cannot win a gold, but you know what? We've opened a new vista."
The Snow Leopard knows the feeling. When he failed to qualify for Turin he nearly retired. When he finally qualified for the Olympics last March, he was tempted to quit again. He was tired of lugging his bags across Europe, sacrificing food money for races and race money for food. But his wife, Sena, told him he had to go; he couldn't have struggled all those years just to watch the Olympics on TV.
So Nkrumah-Acheampong went to Vancouver. He arrived intimidated, got over it and decided, "I'm here to destroy the course." He has one ambition in Saturday's slalom: to compete like he belongs. To not finish last. To beat one skier, maybe two, from a country that actually gets snow.