But Frimpong’s Olympic debut is about more than winning a medal—it’s about what it took for him to get there and what he hopes will come next. After his first run, Annak told me Ghana saw Akwasi’s Olympic appearance as a chance “to come in and say, here we do not have ice, but we can do it. And we did it.”
Frimpong grew up in a one-room house in Kumasi, Ghana, but moved to the Netherlands when he was eight. For 13 years, he stayed there without proper documentation, living in fear of deportation. As a teenager, he excelled at sprinting, and even earned the title of Dutch junior 200-meter champion. But he avoided competing internationally because it meant potentially being denied entry back into the Netherlands—the country he came to call home.
Then a neighbor told Frimpong about the Johan Cruyff Institute, a Dutch school founded by its namesake, a legendary Dutch soccer player. The school allows students to focus on academics and athletics all at once. With her help, he was admitted in 2004.
But his challenges remained enormous: When he broke his leg at age 18 he struggled to find a doctor who would treat him without ID. And even when Cruyff himself wanted to award Frimpong as the International Student of the Year, Frimpong couldn’t travel to Barcelona for the ceremony. So Cruyff visited him in Amsterdam himself.
At 21, Frimpong finally received good news: His papers were at last in order and he would soon be legal in the Netherlands, which opened up a world of possibilities for him to compete internationally. At 22, he got his Dutch passport and was awarded a scholarship from Utah Valley University, where he began studying and competing on the track and field team in 2008.
At the time, Frimpong was still focused on the racetrack—and specifically the 200-meter sprint. His eyes were set on the 2012 Olympics in London. Then an injury derailed those plans, throwing into limbo the possibility of him ever competing at the Olympic level. But Nicola Minichiello, a Dutch coach, saw his potential as a sprinter and asked him to consider switching to bobsled.
Athletes growing up in hot climates far from snow-covered mountains may indeed have a disadvantage in certain events, like skiing or snowboarding. The U.S. snowboarder Chloe Kim, for example, first hit the slopes at age 4. This week, she won gold at age 17.
But bobsledders and skeleton athletes, no matter where they’re from, often start as track athletes. And West Africa has a long history of producing some of the world’s best sprinters. Ghana, for one, hosts a sprinting competition called “Ghana’s Fastest Human” each year. This year, Nigeria’s first-ever Olympic bobsled team is made up of four women who ran together on the University of Houston track team. (Cool Runnings, the film loosely based on the true story of Jamaica’s 1988 Olympic bobsled team, portrays the athletes as former sprinters. Although Jamaica, too, has produced some of the world’s fastest runners, members of the 1988 team were recruited from its national army.)