Ghana’s global reputation in sport is largely based on football but Abeiku Jackson and Kaya Forson wants to change that when they become the African nation’s first Olympic swimmers.
The 16-year-old Jackson is heading to Brazil to compete in the blue riband 50m freestyle with Forson, a 14-year-old based in Spain.
Both competed in the world championships last year. Neither Jackson nor Forson met the Olympics qualifying time but both got their ticket on the universality system, which allows a country’s two fastest swimmers to compete regardless.
– ‘A family thing’ –
Abeku began swimming when he was three and took part in his first race at five. Both his brothers also swim competitively.
“It’s a family thing,” the teenager told AFP, taking a break from training at a pool in the capital, Accra.
Training is twice-a-day, six days a week and since those early days, his father, Kodwo, has been ever-present.
Kodwo said it was his own fear of water that got his family into the pool. He decided in 2003 to get over his phobia and started swimming lessons for himself and his children.
Since then he has became the coach of his three sons’ swimming team in Accra, the GH Dolphins, and also a national team coach.
Balancing the two roles of parent and coach is not a problem for him, although Abeku sometimes finds it difficult, he said.
“You are in the child’s face all the time,” Kodwo added.
– Pool shortage –
Abeku’s best time for the 50m freestyle is nearly four seconds off the current world record held by Brazil’s Cesar Cielo, making it unlikely he will challenge the big guns in Rio.
But his participation has a wider aim: inspiring other Ghanaians to compete in the future.
“Swimming is a lifesaving sport, it’s a sport that keeps the kids disciplined, it gives them focus and helps them to save lives and work as a team,” said Kodwo.
“I think every child of school going age should have a chance to swim, in one swimming programme or another.”
But in a developing nation like Ghana, infrastructure is an issue.
Accra has an Olympic-sized pool but there is a lack of swimming facilities elsewhere: swimming at the beach or in rivers can be dangerous, with strong tides and currents.
In much of Africa, competitive swimming and water safety skills are generally not a priority.
According to the World Health Organization, Africans, especially young children, are up to 13 times more likely to drown than their Western European counterparts.
Former Olympic swimmer Princess Charlene of Monaco is looking to change that, partnering with a school outside Accra to build a pool and developing a swimming programme.
Her foundation has also run similar programmes in South Africa, Senegal and Tanzania.
– Future champions? –
The president of the Ghana Swimming Association, Theophylus Edzie, hopes the country’s presence in the pool in Rio will help it become known for swimming — and dispel stereotypes.
In Sydney in 2000, Equatorial Guinea swimmers Eric “The Eel” Moussambani and Paula Barila Bolopa were lauded for embodying the true Olympic spirit, even as they trailed in last in qualifying.
But Edzie has high hopes.
“Many people think blacks are non-swimmers but with this boy Abeku, we will prove to people one day that blacks can really swim and blacks can make it equally just like the whites,” he said.
“It is a story we are writing today and this story will be told in 2024 when everything has come to fruition. We are going to change the face of swimming in Ghana.
“We are going to change the face of swimming in West Africa, and we are going to change the face of swimming in Africa and then the world.”