13 August 2008 :In Athens, Benjamin Boukpeti was the first canoeist to represent Africa at the Olympic Games. In Beijing, he planned on becoming the first to win a medal and he made it. Boukpeti, an Olympic Solidarity scholarship holder, won the bronze medal. It was the first medal Togo has ever won at an Olympic Games.
“I don’t really know yet what this represents for the country. I just tried my best and paddled very, very hard”, he said after the medal course. For the Beijing Olympic Games, Olympic Solidarity awarded a total of 1,088 scholarships to 166 National Olympic Committees in 21 individual Olympic sports.
Benjamin’s biggest fan is his older brother Oliver, a member of the French kayak team. Benjamin and Olivier were brought up by a French mother and a Togolese father near Paris, and both learnt canoeing at their local club.
Olivier quickly established himself in the French flatwater team, but shoulder injuries hampered Benjamin’s progress, and in 2003 an opportunity presented itself to represent his father’s country and play a part in the French federation’s development programme. Since then, the 26-year-old has gone from strength to strength, reaching the Olympic slalom K-1 semi-finals in 2004, becoming African champion earlier this year and qualifying for Beijing in the process.
Along the way, he has provided inspiration for a country and a continent where canoeing is developing apace as a sport. When he’s not negotiating the rapids, Boukpeti admits to a liking for travelling, socialising and good parties, but he’s equally dedicated to a career in business, which he’s been studying for the past three years in Toulouse near to his training centre. “I’ve been tremendously inspired by the business world,” he says.
“I’ve learnt about professionalism and how a team works, and all that has helped me enormously with my preparations.” He has a job lined up to start immediately after the Olympic Games, and if the enthusiasm that leaps off the pages of his own website is anything to go by, Boukpeti will go as far in his professional life as he already has in his chosen sport.
Confidence and level-headedness
A striking combination of confidence and level-headedness will also play its part. “In competition it’s important to remain as lucid as you can,” he explains. “You need a lot of technical skill to navigate the river, but it’s also very important to keep your humility. Every day the river tells us we are not the masters. What has given me the most satisfaction is just the feeling of having made progress year after year.”