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Blessing Afrifa

Israel’s Usain Bolt takes aim at the 2024 Olympics in Paris

by
Hillel Kuttler
December 05, 2022
Original photo: Maja Hitij/Getty Images
Original photo: Maja Hitij/Getty Images
Original photo: Maja Hitij/Getty Images
Original photo: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Settling into the starting block at Pascual Guerrero Olympic Stadium, in Cali, Colombia, for the 200-meter final on the evening of Aug. 4, 2022, Blessing Afrifa, 18, felt nervous—“really afraid and stressed,” he’d describe it. This was the track and field world championship for under-20-year-olds, the same event at which, at the 2021 final nearly a year earlier in Nairobi, Kenya, Afrifa finished seventh, in 21.03 seconds. But Afrifa had cause for optimism in Cali, having run 20.37 in a preliminary heat the day before to set a national record for his country—Israel, to which his parents moved from Ghana three decades ago.

Still, Botswana’s Letsile Tebogo had just run a sizzling 19.99 in another heat, and Afrifa, even in training, never bested 20 seconds. In the semifinal, Afrifa dropped his time to 20.17; in a separate semifinal, Tebogo ran 20.23. The final promised drama, with the teens occupying adjacent lanes (4 for Tebogo, 5 for Afrifa), smack in the middle of the field of competitors.

Afrifa felt tired, but “I told myself it’s my one chance, so I got focused.” His coach, Igor Balon, accompanied Afrifa to the starting line. The other runners’ coaches waited where most usually stand: at the finish.

In the starting block, Afrifa told himself: “I’ll just run.” His mind cleared completely. The gun went off. As the runners sprinted down the track, Balon couldn’t tell whether Afrifa or Tebogo led. “I could see it was very close, a two-man race,” he recalled. Balon headed swiftly to the finish line. The crowd roared. Balon didn’t know who came in first. Neither did Afrifa, who said he was sure only that he and Tebogo were “really, really, really, really tight” to the end.

Impossibly, the scoreboard flashed the same time for both runners: 19.96 seconds.

In recorded competitions, only two humans under age 20 have run a faster 200 meters. One was the legendary Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, who proceeded to win the event three times in the Olympics and four times in the world championships.

The officials declared the winner, by six one-thousandths of a second, and posted his name on the screen. Afrifa had won.

“I was more in shock than happy,” is how Afrifa remembers the moment. He draped an Israeli flag across his body and searched for Balon. The teenage athlete and his 59-year-old coach embraced.

Just past 2:00 a.m. in Ramat Gan, 16-year-old Mercy Afrifa, Blessing’s sister who’s also a sprinter, yelped as she digested the live broadcast. The 1,500-strong Ghanaian emigre community in Israel, most clustered in the Neve Shaanan neighborhood of southern Tel Aviv, cheered their favorite son. “We were very proud of him,” the community’s leader, Esther Cromwell, who’s lived in Israel more than 30 years, said of Afrifa. “The fact he’s a Ghanaian will motivate most of the children who are into sports to also achieve their aim.”

Said Afrifa’s first Israeli coach, Gersh Gershkovich: “I think this guy should be in the Olympics final in the 200. He’s proven himself as an excellent sprinter. And from there, anything can happen.”

Jose Praia, Afrifa’s Lisbon-based manager, was more circumspect, but his was a backhanded circumspection. Afrifa is abundantly talented, said Praia, who’s been in the business 31 years, but much physical and athletic maturation lie ahead.

“If they think it’s realistic for him to be in the Paris final, great,” Praia said of some Israelis’ assessments of the 2024 Olympics. “I know he is not a completely ready athlete. To be an Olympic champion, you have to pass [stages]. His speed is not developed yet. There could be a way to increase his 200-meter [time]. The power from the blocks, the power from acceleration, is not fully developed.”

Unprompted, Praia mentioned Bolt. Afrifa opens his right hand to use a turn on the 200 to his advantage, a move that evokes only one other sprinter, he said: Bolt. Praia then got technical in describing how Bolt and Afrifa use their right legs to accelerate to full speed.

The best athletes, he believes, “minimize superfluous movements to beat the others. They don’t focus on performance. They focus on what they have to do. Nervousness is not an obstacle.”

On the two October mornings a reporter visited Tel Aviv’s Hadar Yosef sports complex, Afrifa’s demeanor projected all-business, whether on the track or listening to rap on his AirPods during breaks in the drills Balon oversaw for the six sprinters he coaches for the Maccabi sports movement. Afrifa concentrated intently when Balon advised him. He barely acknowledged the group’s other sprinters he knows best: Mercy and his girlfriend, Milly Tunkel.

Praia, Balon, and Afrifa himself characterize the 5-foot-11, 165-pound young man as quiet, modest and polite. In telephone interviews and conversations at the track, the reporter sensed that, too. Afrifa responded very briefly to most questions and texts, with the calm of a budding star.

Afrifa and Balon speak from the same page—unsurprising, given their five-year pairing. They talk of fundamentals, discipline, dedication, and proper training, trusting that they’ll yield positive results. When asked about his goals in the sport, Afrifa concedes only that he aims to be Israel’s fastest runner and be mentioned alongside the country’s soccer stars and judoka champions. Moderating his aspirations, at least publicly, seems to be a virtue. Only while alone in his hotel room an hour or so after nipping Tebogo did Afrifa grasp that striving for the Paris Olympics “would be realistic” and “a dream come true.”

Afrifa credits his father, Prince, for his moderation. Prince, he said, is “very, very strict,” someone who preaches this: “Stay humble, and don’t think you’re a big guy. Be proud, but don’t boast.”

Natives of the southern Ghanaian city of Kumasi, where they met, Prince and his future wife, Cynthia, came to Israel separately as tourists in the mid-1990s and remained—he, working in the consular division of Ghana’s embassy; she, working as a cleaning lady. The family has struggled financially over the years, and Prince’s heart attack has sidelined him from the job the past three years. As new arrivals on tourist visas, they expressed gratitude to their adopted home by making this pledge: A son would be named Blessing and a daughter Mercy. They got both.

Prince saw something in his kids, a spark that said track and field. Gershkovich thinks back to the autumn day seven years ago when he worked as Maccabi’s manager and Prince, having moved the family to Ramat Gan, brought his children to Hadar Yosef for athletic direction. From the start, Gershkovich said, the siblings were quiet but got along well with others. Two years later, Blessing’s youth coach reported to Gershkovich that the boy, then 15, had raced 100 meters in 11.2 seconds in less-than-ideal conditions: barefoot and on grass.

That speed was “when I realized I should transfer Blessing to Yigal,” Gershkovich said, utilizing Balon’s Hebrew name. “I’m very satisfied that I directed Blessing at the right time to the right person. Both were ready for it. After Blessing joined Yigal, he started developing at a meteoric rate.”

A star sprinter in his native Ukraine before immigrating to Israel in 1990, Balon retained a passion for the sport while building a career in management for a printing company. He entered coaching as a sideline when the progress of his son Zvi stalled. Drawing on books and his own experience, but lacking formal training as a coach, Balon helped Zvi finish third in the 100 and 200 meters at Israel’s 2012 championship.

Now, there’s Afrifa, who runs the 100 meters and the 400-meter relay along with the 200. When he teamed with Balon five years ago, he doubted his ability and didn’t handle adversity well. He was athletically and emotionally “weak,” the coach said. Afrifa agrees. Joining Maccabi and mixing with new people, “I was afraid,” he said. “I was a young child. I didn’t have confidence in myself.”

Balon built up his pupil. He increased training sessions from thrice weekly to five times and put Afrifa through personalized drills.

“He said, ‘Trust me. You can make it.’ He gave me more confidence. He spoke with me. He made me more relaxed,” Afrifa said. “Yigal has made everything come true. I didn’t believe in myself. He believed. He made everything become real.”

Consciously or not, Afrifa similarly aids his sister and his girlfriend with their performances. Tunkel recalls a 200-meter run she considered disappointing at Israel’s junior championships last May. Afrifa took her up to the bleachers—here at Hadar Yosef, she points to the structure a few hundred yards off—and urged her to persevere. He related working through his own struggles on the track.

“I didn’t do well, and he didn’t leave me,” she said. “It helped.”

When practices end and the Afrifas return to Ramat Gan, Cynthia sometimes prepares the taste of home, her Ghana home: jollof, a traditional dish of rice, tomatoes, onions and spices; or plantain fufu, a doughy accompaniment to soup. More often, she’ll make Israeli fare her kids prefer: fish and chicken and pasta.

Blessing and Mercy say they’ve faced no discrimination for being Black African Christians in Israel. This, they say, is their only home, the place where they’ll build their lives. They’ve never visited Ghana, where their grandmothers and other relatives live. Their friends are classmates and fellow runners. Before beginning elementary school, “I felt different because my skin is Black,” Mercy said, “but it got better over the years.” She recently applied for Israeli citizenship, something her brother attained two years ago—mostly so they could compete for the country in international events. Both speak fluent Hebrew and English.

Afrifa’s life now seems simple, which is how he prefers it. He hangs out with Tunkel and window-shops at the malls a short walk from home. He’s adjusting to the military, where the Israel Defense Forces classifies him as an elite athlete with minimal responsibilities, freeing time for sports training. Afrifa rides the bus 40 minutes each morning to an army base in Rehovot, where he spends up to four hours in the motor pool, checking the conditions of military vehicles. Most afternoons, he and the rest of Balon’s group train at Hadar Yosef; on Fridays, they work out in the morning.

This is where, two days after Yom Kippur, Afrifa began training by leaning one leg and then another onto a stair railing to stretch his hamstrings, before sitting on the track and twisting his legs almost into a pretzel. He shed a sweatshirt to get ready for sprints. Afrifa’s gray T-shirt read ISRAEL and depicted the blue-and-white flag. The apparel and his shoes, as much as he wants, come courtesy of Adidas, his sole foreign sponsor—for now.

Afrifa is asked what the shirt, what representing Israel, means to him.

“I feel I’m standing for a community. Israel is a country that [some] countries hate, so it’s an honor to represent them. I want to prove [anti-Israel slander] is not true and Israel is different, and I’m proving it through sports,” he said.

“For my family, I want to represent them living in Israel. … I was born here, grew up here, am in the army now, so I feel Israeli.”

Hillel Kuttler, a writer and editor, can be reached at [email protected]

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