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Gold unlikely, but Ghana's 'Snow Leopard' wins fans

WHISTLER, Canada – There is one athlete who is not expected to medal – in fact, he's just hoping not to come in dead last – but who is quickly becoming one of the media sensations of these Winter Olympics.

Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, better known as the "Snow Leopard," is the first Ghanaian to ever compete in the Winter Olympics.    

Kwame's story is a compelling one: He comes from a sub-Saharan country where there is no snow and he put on skis for the first time just six years ago, yet he managed to qualify for the Olympics; and in an era of multi-million dollar sponsorships, he managed to get this far largely unfunded.

Image: Flag bearer Nkrumah-Acheampong of Ghana leads his country's delegation during the opening ceremony of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics
Flag bearer Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong of Ghana leads his country's delegation into the stadium during the Vancouver Olympics opening ceremony on Feb. 12. 

Kwame is scheduled to compete in the men's slalom event on Feb. 27 and his goals for the event are modest.

"It's about going up there, putting in a good performance, making myself proud, my family proud and my fans proud," Kwame said during a press conference at Whistler on Thursday. "When I go on the slope, it's just about me going through those gates as quickly as I can, and at the end I want to turn around, look at the clock and see a few other names behind me."

Long road

Kwame, 35, was born in Scotland, while his father was studying at the University of Glasgow. He returned to Ghana as a child and spent his formative and university years there, only returning to the U.K. in 2000.

A long-time athlete who was a competitive tennis and soccer player, Kwame started skiing just six years ago after getting a job at an indoor ski center in Milton Keynes, England, where he lived. After learning how to ski on artificial snow for two years, his first time on real snow was at Val D'Isere in France. He soon began racing at small events across Eastern Europe.

After failing to qualify for Torino in 2006, Kwame pressed on, racking up points in international competitions across Europe, as well as competing in Iran and elsewhere. Still, the married father of two hadn't won any big sponsorships and continued to work odd jobs in order to pay for his training. He never had a proper coach until recently and said he learned to ski by asking other national ski teams if he could tag along while they trained and copy-cat the better skiers.

Kwame dismisses comparisons between himself and "Eddie the Eagle" Edwards, the hapless British ski-jumper who essentially crashed the Calgary Games in 1988 – becoming a celebrity more for his lack of skill than anything else. If anything, Kwame prefers to be compared to the Jamaican bobsledders who he believes were competitive athletes.

Image: Kwame Nkrumah Acheampong
Dirk Meissner / AP
Kwame Nkrumah Acheampong, of Ghana, takes a break from training to talk to the media on Mount Washington in British Columbia, on Feb. 2. 

"I think where [Eddie the Eagle] lost track of the whole Olympic competition was when he turned the whole thing into a fun fair, merry-go-round kind of thing," said Kwame. "For me, sports are about competition… It's not about all the funny things you can do to create loads of money. I think the team around me understands that we are not here to joke."

Besides, in the wake of what many considered a mockery of the games by Edwards, the International Olympic Committee tightened the qualifying rules and instituted what has become known as the "Eddie the Eagle Rule." Olympic hopefuls now must compete in a series of international competitions and place in the top 30 percent or the top 50 competitors.

Despite qualifying for the games, Kwame remains humble about the sport and says the challenge of skiing is what he loves about it. "It is extremely difficult and I'll never be perfect at it, so there is always something to fight for. With sports, when I get really good at something, I get bored. Skiing is like impossible for me to get really good at it. I can only keep fighting, fighting, fighting… But at least I will not regret doing it because it has given me this opportunity to be here."

Media sensation
Sporting his signature "Ghana Ski Team" clothing – white jacket with leopard print spots and a white tee-shirt with Ghana's national star in the center and spots down the shoulders – the "Snow Leopard" has made quite an impression on the Whistler scene.

A phalanx of about 10 TV cameras and 30 members of the international press gathered for his press conference at the base of the mountain. With countless newspaper articles and TV feature stories already done on him, he has become one of the most popular figures of the games.  

The so-called "merry band of brothers" supporting him – his coach, manager, a Web master and a physical therapist – are using every means available to get his message out.

There is the Ghana Ski Team Official Website, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, YouTube video and even a song expected to come out on iTunes soon. 

There is even a Ghana Ski Team pin. The pin has become a must-have item among near fanatical Olympic pin collectors because only 1,500 were produced.

Image: gift shop "Chachkas"
Petra Cahill/ msnbc.com
The gift shop "Chachkas" has adopted a Ghanaian theme for its store front in an homage to the "Snow Leopard." 

"Chachkas," a gift shop in the upscale neighborhood of South Granville in Vancouver, has dedicated its entire storefront to the "Snow Leopard." The window display is painted in the colors of the Ghanaian flag –  red, yellow and green – and features a huge portrait of the "Snow Leopard."

Margo Ryan, one of the shops owners, explained that every store in the area was assigned a national flag by the local business association and once they got Ghana, they started reading up on the "Snow Leopard" and realized he was a "one man team" who learned to ski under such unlikely conditions that they decided to do what she described as "an homage" to him.

 "We sometimes get caught up in the flag instead of the athlete," said Rick Fuller, Ryan's business partner. But, he believes the Snow Leopard seems to represent the bigger ideas of "Olympic spirit and athleticism."  

That's exactly why Richard Harpham, Kwame's close friend and manager, believes the "Snow Leopard" story has resonated with people. With so much commercialization of the Olympics and the big sponsorships needed to qualify, Richard believes people have flocked to Kwame's story because it "gives them some of the spirit of the games."

Image: The "Snow Leopard" and his entourage
Petra Cahill/ msnbc.com
The "Snow Leopard" and his entourage from the Ghana Ski Team arrive for a press conference in Whistler on Feb. 18. 

Still looking for sponsors

Still, the Ghanaian Ski Team is struggling to find sponsors. While, according to Kwame, most athletes who manage to qualify for the Olympics have done so with a budget of about $250,000, he says he and his team have scraped by on about $75,000, and no one – not his coach, manager or himself – are paid. The money has gone toward expenses like food and travel. And, he says, the Ghanaian government hasn't paid for a thing. 

"The team is riding on the benevolence and kindness of individuals and organizations," said Kwame.

Although, at the end of January, Team Ghana did win its biggest sponsor so far: Paddy Power, an online Irish gambling company. "We love the underdog at Paddy Power," the company said in a statement, and they are betting big that Kwame will plow his way to becoming the big story at the Olympics.

And what are Paddy Power's current odds on how many competitors the Snow Leopard will beat? They are five to four that he won't beat another skier.

'Gotten this far'
Meantime, Kwame said he is proud to be here, but that he is just "trying to keep my feet on the ground."

He said that taking part in the Opening Ceremony made the whole experience real. "We were sandwiched between Germany and Great Britain and I think we got more cheers when we came in than Germany…. It was really great to come out and actually hear the volume kind of step up."

"It made me personally realize that I had actually gotten this far, to the Olympics, and it's just a great opportunity."