Benjamin Boukpeti the Epitome of the Olympic Spirit?

A DimondSenior Analyst IAugust 12, 2008

This article was written in conjunction with Ted Knight, a former England & Great Britain U-23 K1 kayaker, who is something of an expert on the sport of canoe slalom. He revealed to me the real story behind a would-be fairytale.

When I first saw Benjamin Boukpeti, a kayaker from Togo, I was less than impressed. He was charging towards that crucial first upstream gate in Monday morning’s Men's K1 qualification event, only to promptly drop deep in the eddy below.Images of "Eddie the Eagle" and "Eric the Eel" came rushing into my head.

I was already starting to dream up the new nickname. "Benjy the Boater" or "Bouk the Blowout" seemed most apt.

He looked, if you excuse the pun, well out of his depth.

Boukpeti—a man who qualified for the Olympics thanks to the IOC's regulation stipulating there must be at least one competitor from each continent—struggled...badly.

The times don’t lie. He ended that first run attempt with just one man, Atanis Nikolovski of Macedonia, behind him.

Then something remarkable happened. In a stunning display of sheer force and aggression, Boukpeti did the impossible and posted the fastest time of the second run. Spectators and rivals alike looked on in disbelief. Did the man from Togo really just do that?

Boukpeti ended the day in eighth place, comfortably qualifying for the semifinals. He even found himself ahead of Britain’s very own Olympic silver medalist, Campbell Walsh.

Finals day arrived, and after a good night’s sleep, most in the sporting world had again forgotten Boukpeti. All eyes were focused on the genuine contenders—Walsh, Grimm, Lefevre, et al. With a much tougher course set, surely Benjamin’s speed of the day before was just a splash in the water.

But Boukpeti made sure he was not to be forgotten. With two more runs of strength and determination, the 27-year-old fought his way to the podium and reveled in the delight of being Togo’s first ever Olympic medal winner.

What separates him from Eddie or Eric, it seems, is the fact that he actually is rather good. A true Olympic hero, even.

Stop the story there—it is a fairytale. But unfortunately, there are a few details still to be covered.

A little further investigation reveals Boukpeti was actually born in Lagny, France, and lives in Toulouse. He trains with the French team, and was receiving coaching from the South Africans during the tournament in Beijing.

The man has only been to Togo once in his life—and he represented France as a junior.

How is it, then, that he ended up sporting the Togolese national colours at the Opening Ceremony, and even proudly carried their flag?

It turns out that whilst his mother is French, his father is from Togo, and under Olympic rules that is enough to make him eligible to represent the African nation. The advantage of changing nationalities is obvious. It made qualifying for the Olympics much easier.

If Boukpeti had stuck with his country of birth, he would have found himself competing against the 2004 Olympic Champion Benoit Peschier, the former two-time World Champion Fabien Lefevre, and the current World Champion Sebastien Combot—all for just the one Olympic place each country is allowed

In Togo, he had no opposition.

He breezed through the African Championship—beating a British man trying the same trick in representing Nigeria—and therefore gained an otherwise unobtainable Olympic berth.

So, it seems that the early contender for "Darling of the 2008 Olympics" is, in fact, just another example of the rather less beautiful side of international sport.

Like those before him—such as Francis Obikwelu (who ditched Nigeria in favour of Portugal), Stephen Cherono (who swapped Kenya for Qatar, even changing his name to Saif Saaeed Shaheen in the process)—Boukpeti has simply contributed to adding nationality to the list of things one must doubt when watching the Olympic Games.

He may not have been "Benjy the Boater," but when it comes to symbolising the Olympic spirit, it seems he is no "Eric the Eel" either.