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Canoe Win A Medal?

One of the athletes at the Olympics keeps his canoe in England,but his heart in Nigeria.

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Fresh from training in London, the approaching Olympics is just starting to feel real for Johny Akinyemi.

Aerial view of the Olympic Stadium

“After I qualified it was a bit of a dream, and then you have to quickly realize it’s not that long until the games. You have to get down and focus on the training and put in the hours and the hard work,” he says.

A British-born canoeist of Nigerian blood, Akinyemi, 23, has a realistic shot at a medal in London in the white water slalom, having beaten Beijing bronze medalist, Benjamin Boukpeti, in the qualifiers to book his place. Since then, he has put in the hard graft, training at altitude in South Africa and on courses in Cardiff and London. “Now I’m at quite a high level of training. I don’t want to peak too soon,” he says.

Raised in Warrington, near Manchester in England, Akinyemi represented the British team at a junior level, and was for a time the country’s top youth canoeist before switching allegiance to Nigeria, narrowly missing out on a trip to China in 2008. Since then, he has worked hard to improve the profile and practice of the sport in West Africa. The Nigerian Canoe Federation was founded in 2007, attached to the country’s active rowing association, based on Victoria Island in Lagos, and Akinyemi has been there since the start, getting a crash course in the country’s infamous bureaucracy on the way.

“We got a container full of boats delivered to Nigeria—some sprint canoes and slalom kayaks. It took about 18 months to get them out of the port, but eventually we got them out,” he says.

It is unlikely that the sport is going to challenge Nigeria’s other sporting passions—soccer and wrestling—but it is generating a buzz in certain circles. The country picked up two canoeing medals in the All Africa Games, on top of Akinyemi’s own qualification for London 2012. Once the games are over, he will head to Nigeria’s Calabar region to scout out some white water to train on and to hopefully set up a club there to train the next generation of slalom competitors. Akinyemi believes that the potential is there for Nigeria to achieve.

“In Lagos, there are canoes everywhere. There are villages out on the water—canoes are a way of life for those guys. They’re not carbon kevlar, but I’m sure that if we could, in some way, get these guys in competitive canoeing they would be good at it. They’re used to the water, they’re used to using the paddle, and they’ve got the strength.”

The success and the interest has not, however, transmuted into riches for the sport or for Akinyemi himself, who is currently looking for a sponsor. Up until 2011, most of his funding came from his father, who paid for airfares and gear. The Nigerian Olympic Committee has paid for his canoe for the London games and is contributing to the fees for training on the Olympic course, which come to £60 ($93) per hour. The Olympic Solidarity Commission, which funds athletes from lower income countries, allocates him around $1,000 a month for training and equipment, which, given the cost of canoes and the requirement for international travel, is a drop in the river.

The dreamlike rush of excitement, followed by hard graft and tangles over sponsorship, of Akinyemi’s experience is, in microcosm, the London Olympics. Since winning the bid, the euphoria has dissipated amidst a mixture of traditional British cynicism and genuine economic pain. The 2009 recession was followed by a brief and uninspiring calm, before a combination of deep state spending cuts and the European sovereign debt crisis dragged the British economy back into the mire. The Olympic stadia are among the few buildings of scale still under construction in London, as funding dried up and the rationale vanished for new skyscrapers in a city where jobs were being lost.

Britain notoriously overspends and delivers late on its big projects: the Millennium Dome, £200 million ($362.3 million) over budget; the new Wembley stadium, a year too late; so it was hardly surprising that expectations were fairly low. The experience of the Dome also highlighted the difficulty of turning showcase projects into useful infrastructure.

The Olympics, more than any event, is known for its white elephants. Greece, which hosted the 2004 games, as if it hasn’t suffered enough this year, has the embarrassment of a number of crumbling and unused facilities. After spending more than €10 billion ($12.2 billion) on running the games, Greece now has the cost of the upkeep of these abandoned buildings.

On the flip side, both the Barcelona and Atlanta games, in 1992 and 1996, respectively, are seen as exemplars of how to handle legacy programs. Both benefited from smart investments in infrastructure and marketing. London hopes to follow their example, rather than that of Athens, but the signs are not encouraging. A deal to sell the Olympic stadium to West Ham football club fell through in October 2011 and the Olympic Park Legacy Committee is now on the hunt for tenants.

The rest of the site in East London will be renamed the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, with the sports facilities opened up to the public and the athletes’ village turned into housing. Just how much demand there will be for a high tech velodrome in Stratford, one of the capital’s more deprived areas, remains to be seen.

One part of the organization does seem to be running smoothly: Sponsorship, branding and broadcast rights are expected to generate around £2 billion ($3 billion) for the International Olympic Committee and the London organizers, and commentators have remarked on how visible the corporate presence is in the 2012 event.

The 70,000 volunteer “Games Makers” will have their training materials prepared by McDonald’s, which will be operating the world’s largest fast food outlet in the Olympic village for the duration of the games. The US chain is one of 11 worldwide “Olympic Partners”—a group which also includes Samsung, Coca-Cola, Procter and Gamble and, controversially, Dow Chemical.

Dow’s contribution, which includes a “wrap” for the Olympic stadium, caused uproar amongst human rights groups, including Amnesty International. Dow acquired Union Carbide, the company responsible for the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India. Fears that the Indian team would boycott the opening ceremony, or even the entire Olympics, proved unfounded, but the issue has left a sour taste.

The commercialization of the games—the organizers insist that private sponsorship is what makes them possible—has also been a story. The aggressive clampdown on the use of trademarks, including the words “London 2012” have made headlines as small businesses in East London are warned that they could find themselves in serious trouble should they try to associate themselves with the event. The policing of this skirted close to farce at times, with reports that monitors from Locog—the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games—have arrived on set at photo shoots to prevent non-sponsors from recreating famous sporting moments or straying too close to the games. An East London florist was threatened with legal action unless she took down a display showing the famous rings made from flowers. Athletes who tweet endorsements for the “wrong” brand have been told they face expulsion. Others have sneered at the spectacle of the supposedly solemn ceremony of the torch relay being led by the Coca-Cola “Move to the Beat” bus blaring out pop music.

In working class East London, there is a sense that the London Olympics is a show more for the brands than for the people. There is also the question of whether the city can accommodate the extra 325,000 people per day using the transport system; the ire caused by the “games lanes” set aside to allow officials to bypass the inevitable gridlock; the near-indecipherable logo; the oddly phallic mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville; the £500 million ($768.5 million)—plus security operation that has seen anti-aircraft missiles stationed on rooftops in Tower Hamlets and warships in the Thames.

Even so, the excitement is building, albeit not as fast as the organizers might have hoped. The torch relay—headed of course by the sponsors’ buses—flickered in the public imagination before a long-awaited spell of hot weather hit the country and the British public moved en masse away from their television sets and into the sunshine. There was first the Queen’s Jubilee weekend to get out of the way, and then the European football championships, which usually puts the country into a disappointed mood. With these out of the way, the criticisms and introspection could either crescendo ahead of the opening ceremony on July 27, or disappear beneath the kind of pressured, euphoric patriotism the East End is famous for. For competitors like Akinyemi, however, it is unlikely to matter—he has canoes and the pride of Nigeria on his mind.

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