How do you get 150 million people into a sport that few of them have ever heard of, especially when the supply of their usual opiate football has not quite delivered the expected high? It’s a good job the Olympics are just round the corner and there is no better spectacle to deliver new heroes and new sports. Step forward Johnathan Akinyemi, current African canoe slalom kayak single champion.
As a sport canoeing is relatively new to Nigeria but Akinyemi is excited by both the potential and its deep heritage in Africa’s most populous country.
“The Nigeria Canoeing, Rowing and Sailing Federation under Rear Admiral Festus Porbeni are doing a great job getting people involved in canoeing and giving me support. They’re getting kids involved and sending people out to races. At the All African Games in Maputo we won two medals. At the moment we are trying to make it a grassroot sports. We want to get as many people involved as possible. I think it’s got so much potential in Nigeria.”
“While I was in Lagos I saw so much natural talent. We just need to get used to a competitive environment and to the white water. And the different types of boat. Then we’ll be doing good. It’s part of our heritage. I remember reading somewhere that President Goodluck Jonathan comes from a family of canoe makers.”
There is such an infectious enthusiasm that consumes Akinyemi when he talks about his sport. He says there isn’t time right now for too much else in life outside of training and studying.
“I’m doing an accounting qualification course having finished a theology degree two years ago. I think going into the ministry is a real calling but you have to be called by God. So I’m taking a break from theology and doing some accountancy while training. Canoeing takes up all my time. I spend a lot of time around the water, swimming and do some other sports. I like playing squash.
With the African Championships coming up in February, training is more intense than it usually is at this time of the year.
“I’m working on a bit of strength and endurance while it’s cold out here. It’ll be training session in the morning on the white water and the flat water. Then, in the afternoon, weight sessions and gym work for stamina. After Christmas I’m going to South Africa for training. I can get some African air in my lungs and get some warm air as well!”
The African Championships promise to be a epic clash between Akinyemi, the African champion, and Benjamin Boukpeti, the Togolese bronze medallist from Beijing, for the single place on offer to Africa.
“l can’t understand how they give out places. In my category there is only going to be one place for Africa. In total there will only be three athletes going from Africa for canoeing slalom which is really disappointing and unfair. All the other continents have six and some have 15.”
It came down to the two of them for the Beijing slot, although that was decided off the water.
“Benjamin Boukpeti qualified in the last World 15 place. I qualified in the African Continental place. China only sent a B team to the Asian championships and didn’t qualify, but they were given a place as the host which meant the World 15 place dropped out so my place then went to Benjamin. It was quite frustrating.”
Akinyemi admits it wasn’t easy dealing with the heartbreak of the Beijing qualification series.
“I had to take a step back and ask myself if I wanted to carry on or not. In the end I thought I owed it to the people who have supported me so far and I think I can do well in this Olympics by the grace of God. I will go there and be competitive and see what happens this time.”
Faith helps him keep everything in perspective.
“Faith is the most important thing in life. God is the most important thing in my life. You have to keep things in perspective. Whatever God wills will happen. I have to surrender to God to guide me. It’s that balance, if God wants you to go and if it’s the right time. Or, if God doesn’t think it the best thing in your life right now.
“Sometimes you have a bad race and you are wondering “why me and why did this happen to me?” In the grand scheme of things canoeing it is just canoeing. You just have to put your faith in God.”
It’s a simple bottom line. Just like what he has to do in February.
“If I go out there and defend my title I will be going for the Olympics. We are pretty even and on a good day I should beat him. He is quite strong, whereas I’m more technical and better suited to the technical courses.”
The Olympics is where Akinyemi’s love for canoeing began. “I remember watching the 2000 Olympics. Even though I was only watching it on TV I remember the atmosphere and spirit of the Olympics. I remember watching Canoe Slalom and thinking that looks like a fun and exciting sport, I should give that a go. At the time I was pestering my dad for a motorbike but he thought it was too dangerous and he got me an old second hand canoe instead.
Living in England he started racing in the English league and quickly got to the top of the four divisions and was asked to compete for Great Britain. It was as a British junior national champion he made the switch to Nigeria.
“I went to North Africa first, for a holiday in Egypt and remember saying this is a really cool place. I decided to take a trip to Nigeria to get in touch with my mum and dad’s roots. It was fantastic. As soon as I said my name was Akinyemi they understood I was Nigerian and made to feel welcome. It was fantastic.”
Although 2012 comes first Akinyemi knows what he would like beyond that for Nigerian canoeing.
“I want 2012 to be the beginning almost of Nigeria canoeing, everybody looking at canoeing in 2012. Nigerians getting involved in the sport and children going out after seeing a Nigerian canoeing at the Olympics. By the next Olympics we will have a big team trying to qualify for an Olympic spot. We’ll compete again for 2016, whether it’s me or another Nigerian. Either way we’ll have Nigerians at the Olympics and a legacy where Nigeria is a canoeing nation.”
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