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|Born||4 Aug 1981|
SHUNYI, China: As the leaping waters carried Benjamin Boukpeti surging across the finish line Tuesday, he smashed his double-bladed paddle across the bow of his kayak.
Boukpeti had led going into the final of the individual slalom and had slipped to third, but any momentary frustration quickly disappeared. He raised the two splinters, one in each fist, in an unambiguous gesture of triumph. His bronze was the first-ever Olympic medal for Togo.
The two gold medals were won Tuesday with performances that were, in their different ways, utterly dominating. Alexander Grimm of Germany was fourth after the kayak semifinals, but his second run of 84.39 seconds was by far the fastest of the day.
In the canoe, Michal Martikan regained his Olympic title by recording the fastest run in both legs, even though he incurred a two-second penalty for touching a gate each time. Neither was an unknown quantity. Grimm was ranked third in the world. Martikan had won gold in 1996, silver at the next two Olympics and six world titles.
Boukpeti had finished 18th at Athens in 2004. That result, according to the official Olympic Web site, was "arguably" Togo's "best ever" Olympic result.
Boukpeti wanted to compete for France, but injured both shoulders and needed surgery. By the time he had recovered he was too old for the training program. He opted for Togo, even though it meant he had no team structure and had to seek help where he could from other leading canoeists.
"My father is from Togo and was a teacher there and my mother went there to teach, met my father and married him," he said. "I was born in the Paris region because my parents returned to France for professional reasons. Unfortunately, I have only been to Togo once, when my mother took me there as a baby to show me off to my grandmother. I have a good reason to go back there now."
The demanding Olympic course repeatedly tripped up more illustrious rivals. Boukpeti rode the wave in the semifinal and finished first in 86.06, one hundredth of a second ahead of another low-ranked entrant, Warwick Draper of Australia.
Grimm, in fourth, 1.23 seconds back, hardly put a paddle wrong in his second run. "I found the right way through the water," he said. "I was above the water. I had a good feeling."
Fabien Lefevre of France jumped to second with a time 86.09 for a cumulative 173.30. Boukpeti started last. His time, 87.37, was the third best of the second run, but not enough to protect his lead. He finished 0.15 seconds behind Lefevre. "I just tried to do my best. I paddled my best," he said. "There was a big crowd. I tried to make them vibrate a little."
At the press conference, Lefevre, who won bronze in Athens, bantered happily with Boukpeti, though he might not have been so relaxed if a man rejected by his team had beaten him. "What Benjamin has done is superb," he said. "It shows our sport can be universal."
Martikan had only lost an Olympic final to one man, Tony Estanguet, a Frenchman who won in Sydney and Athens. In 2004, the Slovak lost by 12-hundreths of a second after touching a gate for a two-second penalty.
But this course, which dropped 5.2 meters over its curving, roiling 280-meter length, favored more technical paddlers. In the semifinal, Estanguet was in trouble after the 3rd of the 21 gates as he struggled with an upstream gate in a caldron nicknamed the Dragon's Mouth. He lost momentum and two seconds as he touched a pole.
"I attached an anchor to gate 3 and that dragged me back down the whole course," he said. He finished ninth among the 12 semifinalist. Only the top eight went through.
Standing barefoot on the grass to face the media two hours before he might have anticipated, Estanguet said: "This course is not for me. I never understood the rhythm of the water."
After the final, Robin Bell, an Australian who finished third, agreed. "This course is very unnatural," he said.
Martikan also said the movement of the water was unnatural in places, but while on it he had no problems. Where Estanguet could find no rhythm, Martikan's boat danced. Even with a two-second penalty he finished the semifinal in the lead.
That meant he went last in the final and could watch as the hopes of one rival after another were washed away in the Dragon's Mouth. David Florence of Britain came through unscathed, but only another Martikan penalty made it close. Martikan finished in 176.65 seconds overall, 1.96 seconds ahead of Florence.
"It was really fast," Martikan said, but then, with a laugh, said he was not happy that he had incurred a penalty. "Touching in an Olympic final is not good."
Togo's Benjamin Boukpeti made Olympic history on Tuesday with a bronze medal in the single kayak.
Boukpeti makes history for Togo in kayak
Togo's Benjamin Boukpeti made Olympic history on Tuesday with a bronze medal in the single kayak.
Not only was he the first black man ever to medal in a slalom event, according to the International Canoe Federation, he is the first athlete ever to win a medal for Togo in any Summer Games.
Alexander Grimm of Germany, ranked No. 3 in the world, won the gold medal in a combined time of 171.70 using a pair of clean, fast runs. Fabien Lefevre of France won the silver in 173.30
"I really don't know yet what this quite represents," Boukpeti said though a translator.
Boukpeti kissed his fists before he thrust them into the air on the medal stand and hopped up and down several times before the medal was placed around his neck, his parents watching nearby.
"I tried to give people some entertainment," he said. "I tried to make them vibrate a little."
Boukpeti was the last competitor to negotiate his one-man kayak through the strategically placed gates, and the crowd was behind him from the start. His ride was clean and his combined time was 173.45 seconds.
He hugged and kissed his French mother and Togolese father after he crossed the finish line and said, "They showed me it was possible."
Boukpeti speaks French and lives in Toulouse, France. He was born in France and only visited Togo, in West Africa, once as a young boy.
He snapped his paddle in the foamy water when he slammed it in exultation, forcing him to splash his hands around to get to his waiting fans.
This celebration was for Togo.
Boukpeti developed through a program in France, but shoulder injuries ended his career there. The 27-year-old represented Togo when he competed in the 2004 Athens Games.
Grimm ducked and weaved around the gates. Every flawless run - without even the tip of the paddle touching the gate - earned a "wonderful!" or two giant thumbs up on the scoreboard.
"I've got a massive party ahead of me," he said.
Michal Martikan of Slovakia won the gold medal in single canoe slalom with a time of 176.65, his first since winning in Atlanta in 1996.
Martikan won silver in Sydney and Athens, finishing second both times behind France's Tony Estanguet, who finished a surprising ninth in his first run on the whitewater course in Beijing and did not qualify for the finals.
David Florence of Britain won silver in 178.61 and Robin Bell of Australia earned bronze in 180.59.
American Benn Fraker advanced to the final and finished sixth.
Martikan was only 17 when he won in Atlanta. Top ranked by the ICF, his combined time of 176.65 seconds was nearly two seconds better than Florence's time.
Estanguet, the French flag-bearer at the opening ceremony, couldn't believe he didn't win.
"It was a very bad race for me," he said. "It's very difficult for me to explain why I was out."
Estanguet was an outspoken critic of the Chinese government and said earlier this year: "The situation in China is certainly intolerable." He also said it was "unbearable for us sports people."
Has he changed his mind?
"No, but these games can be a great games," he said. "China has been very motivated to welcome these Olympic Games."
Benjamin Boukpeti the Epitome of the Olympic Spirit?
When I first saw Benjamin Boukpeti, a kayaker from Togo, I was less than impressed. He was charging towards that crucial first upstream gate in Monday morning’s Men's K1 qualification event, only to promptly drop deep in the eddy below.Images of "Eddie the Eagle" and "Eric the Eel" came rushing into my head.
I was already starting to dream up the new nickname. "Benjy the Boater" or "Bouk the Blowout" seemed most apt.
He looked, if you excuse the pun, well out of his depth.
Boukpeti—a man who qualified for the Olympics thanks to the IOC's regulation stipulating there must be at least one competitor from each continent—struggled...badly.
The times don’t lie. He ended that first run attempt with just one man, Atanis Nikolovski of Macedonia, behind him.
Then something remarkable happened. In a stunning display of sheer force and aggression, Boukpeti did the impossible and posted the fastest time of the second run. Spectators and rivals alike looked on in disbelief. Did the man from Togo really just do that?
Boukpeti ended the day in eighth place, comfortably qualifying for the semifinals. He even found himself ahead of Britain’s very own Olympic silver medalist, Campbell Walsh.
Finals day arrived, and after a good night’s sleep, most in the sporting world had again forgotten Boukpeti. All eyes were focused on the genuine contenders—Walsh, Grimm, Lefevre, et al. With a much tougher course set, surely Benjamin’s speed of the day before was just a splash in the water.
But Boukpeti made sure he was not to be forgotten. With two more runs of strength and determination, the 27-year-old fought his way to the podium and reveled in the delight of being Togo’s first ever Olympic medal winner.
What separates him from Eddie or Eric, it seems, is the fact that he actually is rather good. A true Olympic hero, even.
Stop the story there—it is a fairytale. But unfortunately, there are a few details still to be covered.
A little further investigation reveals Boukpeti was actually born in Lagny, France, and lives in Toulouse. He trains with the French team, and was receiving coaching from the South Africans during the tournament in Beijing.
The man has only been to Togo once in his life—and he represented France as a junior.
How is it, then, that he ended up sporting the Togolese national colours at the Opening Ceremony, and even proudly carried their flag?
It turns out that whilst his mother is French, his father is from Togo, and under Olympic rules that is enough to make him eligible to represent the African nation. The advantage of changing nationalities is obvious. It made qualifying for the Olympics much easier.
If Boukpeti had stuck with his country of birth, he would have found himself competing against the 2004 Olympic Champion Benoit Peschier, the former two-time World Champion Fabien Lefevre, and the current World Champion Sebastien Combot—all for just the one Olympic place each country is allowed
In Togo, he had no opposition.
He breezed through the African Championship—beating a British man trying the same trick in representing Nigeria—and therefore gained an otherwise unobtainable Olympic berth.
So, it seems that the early contender for "Darling of the 2008 Olympics" is, in fact, just another example of the rather less beautiful side of international sport.
Like those before him—such as Francis Obikwelu (who ditched Nigeria in favour of Portugal), Stephen Cherono (who swapped Kenya for Qatar, even changing his name to Saif Saaeed Shaheen in the process)—Boukpeti has simply contributed to adding nationality to the list of things one must doubt when watching the Olympic Games.
He may not have been "Benjy the Boater," but when it comes to symbolising the Olympic spirit, it seems he is no "Eric the Eel" either.