Olympic hopes of Nigerian canoeist Johny Akinyemi

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Media captionJohny Akinyemi: "If I can inspire young Nigerians to rise through the ranks and beat me then that would be a really great thing"

Born and raised in England, Johny Akinyemi gave up his place at the top of the British Canoe rankings to compete for Nigeria, his father's home country.

Currently pan-African champion, he stands in good stead to represent Nigeria at the upcoming World Championships and, if he gets through the qualifying heats, the London Olympics in 2012.

It was at the age of 11, sitting in his parents' front room in north-east England that Akinyemi figured out what he wanted to do with his life.

He was watching the final Olympic run of British canoeist Paul Ratcliffe at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

That run, which earned Britain a silver medal, ignited an ambition to be an Olympian canoeist.

After a short time on the junior circuit Akinyemi secured a place on the British national team aged 13.

By 2006 he was junior British national champion.

But by this point, as many teenagers do, Akinyemi had begun to struggle with issues of identity.

"I don't like to make too much of my ethnicity but I think it can be hard growing up in British society as a mixed-race lad," he told the BBC World Service.

Akinyemi asked his father to take him to meet other Nigerians in the local area, particularly those of the Yoruba ethnic group to which he belongs.

"The first time I went, a mixed-race lady in our local Yoruba club said to me: 'When you first fly to Africa and touch down there, you'll know it's in your blood, you'll know you've come home.'"


Akinyemi first visited Nigeria in 2007, aged 18. Within the year he had signed up for the Nigerian team.

Image caption Lee Valley White Water Centre will be the venue for the London 2012 Canoe Slalom competition

"There's a choice, either you can ignore who you are or embrace it.

"I personally am really proud of my Nigerian nationality and want to embrace it as much as I can."

Once nationalised, Akinyemi set about exploring the lakes and river systems around Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital.

He is convinced that Nigeria and Africa more broadly could become the geographical powerhouse of the sport.

"What we've got here in London is great, it's really great, but when you look in Africa there are all these natural white-water courses which are bigger and better than any of the man-made ones in Europe.

"And all those rivers are ready made and just waiting to be explored," he says.

Bucking the trend

Africa regularly loses many of their highly skilled athletes to more lucrative leagues overseas.

Canoeing, however, seems to be bucking the trend.

French-born Togolese Benjamin Boukpeti took an Olympic bronze for Togo in Beijing in 2008.

Another hotly tipped paddler is the Senegalese-Canadian Dabakar Daoust.

Competing for Nigeria is important for Akinyemi.

"It felt really special to do it in reverse. For me to go back and to be accepted with open arms was truly a humble moment," he said.

"They never had to take me.

"I'm really grateful to the Nigerian Olympic Committee for allowing me to do it and for helping me explore that side of me," he added.

"If I can go there and help unlock the future of Nigerian young canoeing or in any way help to inspire young Nigerians to rise through the ranks and beat me then that would be a really great thing."

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