By the time Benjamin Boukpeti took his first stroke into the whitewater in the men's K-1 Kayak final, he had already captured the hearts of the fans at the Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park. The chants of "Togo! Togo!" were heard above the roar of the whitewater.
Boukpeti, a man with massive arms and broad shoulders, paddles for the small west African country known for its passion for soccer. He had won the favor of the crowd during the semi-finals, having a great run through the slalom gates to better Australia's Warwick Draper by one one-hundredth of a second and move into first place.
The only member of the Togolese whitewater team, Boukpeti lives and trains in France with some of the world's premier kayakers. And as he paddled through the rapids, the last competitor of the finals, he became Togo's chance to win their first ever Olympic medal.
The first part of Boukpeti's run was flawless, as his split times at two points in the run were better than the current leader, Alexander Grimm of Germany. A slow turn through a gate added unwanted seconds to Boukpeti's time, but as he flew through the finish line, his run was still been fast enough to earn him, and Togo, the bronze medal.
Boukpeti looked up at the clock and realized he had medaled. He raised his paddle to celebrate, shaking it with his hands and screaming with a smile on his face. Boukpeti let out another yell, then slammed his paddle onto the front of his boat, snapping the paddle into two. He continued to yell and shake the two-pieces of his paddle.
Since his victory, Boukpeti has been criticized for paddling under the Togolese flag. His father is from Togo, but his mother is from France. Boukpeti has only been to his father's homeland a few times.
Amidst athletes competing for countries that they have no affiliation with, Boukpeti has Togolese blood running in his veins. While his critics may be unhappy, Togo celebrates.
Moments after he finished, Boukpeti, who spoke English with a French accent, as many Togolese do, was calmly happy as he was interviewed. "…I'm not really a competitor. I just take pleasure in the water.."
Togo takes great pleasure in you.