Ghana-born Maame Biney has become an Olympic sweetheart with an infectious smile and teen joy at being the first female African-American Olympian in short-track speed skating.
But don’t mess with her when she takes the ice at Pyeongchang, starting with Saturday’s 500m qualifying – her game face will be on.
“It’s like, ‘don’t be in my way because I’m probably going to kill you’,” Biney said before laughing and then being shocked, fearful her honesty might offend.
“I think I’m fierce and strong. Sometimes I overreact to things… When I get on that line, I’ll be like ‘Holy Moley. I’m actually here. This is the Olympics.”
Usually not one for attention, Biney has soaked up the South Korean spotlight.
“It has been crazy, like cameras everywhere. It has been awesome and I’m going to soak it all up like a sponge,” she said. “I just keep smiling. Smiles bring smiles to people. And I’m happy.”
Her journey from Africa to Pyeongchang began at age five when she went to visit her dad, fell in love with America and decided to stay, something she sees as a secret to her success.
“I think it stems from the fact I don’t take things for granted,” she said. “Things (in Ghana) aren’t as good as things in America.”
Her father, Kweku, was suddenly a single parent. He suggested she try figure skating. The coach suggest short track.
“My dad has been a big part of my journey,” she said. “He moved from Ghana to America to get a better life. He never expected me to stay as long as I did. He has given up a lot to make my dream come true.”
After she turned 18 last week, Kweku bought his daughter her long-awaited first phone, which brought fist pumps and smiles.
“It was a big moment,” she said.
She speaks by phone weekly to her mother in Ghana and plans her first visit since 2014 later this year.
Biney has already texted Ghana’s first Winter Olympian, Pyeongchang skeleton slider Akwasi Frimpong.
“We’re going to meet up and hang out,” she said. “It’s going to be so cool.”
Apolo Ohno, a US star who won eight Olympic short track medals, calls Biney the new face of American short track.
“I’m glad he said that,” Biney said. “That’s so cool.”
And she takes her African-American pioneer role seriously.
“It feels very inspiring because I want to inspire kids all over the world,” she said. “I want to give them the inspiration to do whatever they love.”
After the US Olympic trials, she went from 500 Instagram followers to 5,000 in a week. But excitement turned to overload.
“I wanted to take it all in and that was too much for me. I took just a sip and I was drinking and drinking,” she said. “It kind of overwhelmed me but I’m getting better at it.”
Biney, who spent the past seven months in Utah training, will attend the University of Utah as she prepares for the 2022 Beijing Olympics. But her focus now is here.
“I feel very good and really excited,” she said. “Everything is so big. Short track is a big sport in Korea so the crowd is going to be big.”
There is a grey door at the Pyeongchang Winter Games media centre with a sign reading “Olympic Athletes from Russia”, but it is rarely open and inside there are no Russian flags or colours.
It is a fitting metaphor for the country’s participation in South Korea, where the Russian team is suspended over a doping scandal but 167 of its competitors deemed to be drug-free will take part as “Olympic Athletes from Russia”.
Despite officially not competing in the Games, Russia, along with North Korea, has dominated debate in the lead-up to Friday’s opening ceremony.
Russia was suspended from the Games in December over its systemic doping programme, fined $15 million and its former sports minister, Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, was banned for life.
Nevertheless, Russians will still make up one of the largest contingents in Pyeongchang, albeit under a neutral flag – which means standing to the Olympic anthem if they win gold, and a strict absence of Russian colours.
Under stringent conditions imposed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), no white-blue-red Russian tricolours can flutter anywhere in public – not even from apartments in the athletes’ village.
Even if a spectator hands them a Russian flag, they must refuse it. Competitors can hang Russian flags on their bedroom walls, as long as they are out of general sight.
Other rules govern what the Russian competitors can wear, even when training or in casual gear.
For instance, they are not allowed to wear any combination of clothing that would create the Russian tricolour – for example white T-shirt, blue trousers and red footwear.
Their social media will be monitored to make sure they call themselves “Olympic Athlete from Russia” or “OAR”.
The Russians do, however, have a strong incentive to comply with the rules: the IOC is considering lifting Russia’s suspension in time for the closing ceremony on February 25.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
It is all a far cry from four years ago, when Russia hosted the Sochi Winter Olympics and the country soared to the top of the medals table.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had staked his personal reputation on the Games, and the country’s 144 million people, it was an immensely proud moment.
But it is that Olympics which helped propel Russia to where they are today at the Olympics: banned and marginalised, a pariah.
Central to blowing the lid on widespread doping across Russian sport was whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Russia’s anti-doping lab.
Rodchenkov, who alleged that Putin personally ordered the doping programme, fled to the United States in 2016 in fear of his life. Putin later ridiculed his claims and called him “an idiot”.
That same year, a bombshell report by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren on behalf of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) accused Moscow of widespread state-sponsored doping that reached its climax at Sochi.
There, said the report, Russian secret agents were part of an elaborate plot to help the country’s athletes cheat their way to gold.
The nefarious scheme included swapping tainted urine samples for clean ones using a “mousehole” in the Sochi laboratory wall.
Russia’s track and field athletes were consequently banned from the 2016 Rio Olympics and the whole team was barred from the Paralympics. They remain suspended from the Pyeongchang Paralympics.
WHAT HAS RUSSIA SAID?
Moscow officials have been united in their fury against Russia’s continued isolation at the highest level of sport.
There was a rare piece of good news last week when the top court for sport, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), overturned life bans meted out by the IOC to 28 Russian athletes and staff over doping.
But torpedoing any hopes of a late entry to Pyeongchang, the IOC — who were stunned by the CAS ruling — on Monday said 15 of the 28 would not be invited to South Korea.
The rest of the 28 have either retired or are unavailable for undisclosed reasons.
That provoked a furious response from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who branded it “a shameful decision”.
“This decision is unfair, unlawful, amoral and politically charged,” he wrote on Facebook, asserting that “its goal is to do political damage to Russia”.
The number of Russians at Pyeongchang currently stands at 167 “clean” athletes, but on Tuesday CAS said that Korean-born speed skater Viktor Ahn and 31 other Russian athletes had launched a last-ditch appeal against their suspensions.
The Russians – including officials and coaches – at the Winter Olympics will be closely watched by the IOC to ensure they stick to the rules as neutrals.
An observer group will report back on the final day of the Games to the IOC Executive Board, which could then lift – or partially lift – the suspension of the dope-tainted Russian Olympic Committee.
If that is the case, the Russian flag will flutter once more, during the closing ceremony on February 25.
And, presumably, the grey office door will be marked “Russia” rather than “Olympic Athletes from Russia”.
Fifteen Russians whose life bans for doping were lifted last week have been barred from the Pyeongchang Winter Games, the International Olympic Committee said on Monday, as Russia’s drugs conspiracy continued to reverberate just days from the opening ceremony.
The decision was taken after a special panel “unanimously recommended that the IOC not extend an invitation to the Olympic Winter Games Pyeongchang 2018 to the 15 individuals”, a statement said.
“The OAR IG (Olympic Athlete from Russia Implementation Group) confirmed that no additional invitations will be extended to these 15 individuals,” the IOC said.
The 15 were among a group of 28 Russians who had been banned for life from the olympics for doping, but whose suspensions were overturned at the Court of Arbitration for Sport on Thursday.
They included 13 athletes and two ex-athletes now working as support staff. The other members of the 28 have either retired or are unavailable for undisclosed reasons.
The IOC has barred Russia from the Pyeongchang olympics, which open on Friday, over a widespread doping conspiracy. But 169 Russians who have passed strict anti-doping protocols will compete under a neutral flag.
The announcement comes after the body’s president, Thomas Bach, slammed the CAS decision and called for reforms to the independent sports tribunal.
Bach kept up his attack on Monday, when he told reporters: “This CAS decision is extremely disappointing and needs a very careful review. We will clearly review it. If we can appeal it we will appeal it.”
The World Anti-Doping Agency has also expressed “serious concern” over the decision by CAS, which said it had insufficient evidence to leave the bans in place.
– ‘Traces of prohibited substances’ -Australia’s John Coates, president of the court’s governing body, said the tribunal would “thoroughly examine” the concerns raised by Bach and would issue details of the
decisions as soon as possible.
“Athletes are entitled to have confidence in judicial processes at all levels, more particularly before the CAS,” Coates said in a statement.
The IOC’s Invitation Review Panel, which looked into the cases of the Russians, said it had “additional information” including data from a leaked database which showed “traces of prohibited substances (and) evidence of steroid profile manipulation”.
“The panel agreed that the decision of the CAS had not lifted the suspicion of doping or given the panel sufficient confidence to recommend to the OAR IG that those 13 athletes could be considered as clean,” the IOC said.
It is the second successive olympics where the IOC has been embroiled in problems involving Russian doping, after accusations of systemic drug cheating blew up just before Rio 2016.
Russia topped the medals table when it hosted the Sochi 2014 Winter olympics. But it later emerged that dirty samples involving its athletes were switched using a “mousehole” in the anti-doping laboratory’s wall.
At Rio, the IOC stopped short of banning Russia and instead left the decision on their participation up to individual sports federations, creating some confusion in the build-up to the Games.
Bach also heavily criticised WADA at the time and called for its reform, complaining about the timing of the anti-doping body’s report into Russia’s drugs conspiracy.
Reporting from AFP