The games have begun at the London 2012 Olympics and team Nigeria’s 53 athletes have vowed their determination to bring home a gold medal, a feat the nation hasn’t accomplished in 16 years.
One of those athletes gunning for gold is Johny Akinyemi. The British Nigerian is the first canoeist to represent Africa’s most populous nation in the Olympic games.
Akinyemi, 23, will enter the race on July 29. Born to a British motor and Nigerian father, Akinyemi has lived in the UK all his life. His first experience with Nigeria was during a visit, which the athlete describes as both “baptism by fire” and a “great experience” a turning point.
The top ranking canoeist started paddling since he was 12 years old, in 2006 he emerged as the junior British National champion, but his visit to his country persuaded him to compete for Nigeria.
“Just to see where your roots are, to see your heritage and what makes you a person — there’s a Nigerian boy within me and there’s a British boy within me, I’ve only seen the British side of things until I went back to Nigeria and saw my Nigerian heritage and that’s something I’m proud of.”
The athlete said he was “welcomed with open arms”, which made his decision to switch Olympic allegiances easier, according to a CNN report.
“It made a lot of sense to me because there’s always been questions about my identity which has been unanswered until I started to look into my family and my family history and stuff like that and gone back to my roots.”
It is his first time at the Olympics. He missed qualifying for the 2008 Beijing games by one point, but triumphed in the African slalom competitions to secure a place for London.
“It was such a great feeling getting an Olympic spot because I worked so hard for it — it took so long coming after the 2008 Olympics,” he explains. “It’s just such a good feeling that you actually achieved what you wanted to go out there and do.”
He secured the spot after a surprising victory over Togo’s Benjamin Boukpeti, the French citizen who represented Togo in the last Olympics.
“Most people didn’t think I would beat Benjamin but to go out and do it was such a good feeling. I surprised myself a little bit even with that one,” says Akinyemi.
“It’s really good to have such high competition in Africa,” he adds.
Akinyemi, who is also studying to become an accountant, says winning a medal will “mean everything” and make his father proud.
“My dad would be so proud because he was proud of me for qualifying for the Games and he spent a lot of time in Africa helping me get to where I am today. So I think it would be really good, it would almost be winning it for him.”
He is hopeful more Nigerian would get involved in the sport, which he says is already deeply rooted in the culture.