Privel Hinkati was in the crowd at Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016, even after failing to qualify for the latter. But despite a full-time job starting at 5am and ending at 8pm, the Beninese athlete managed to qualify for Tokyo 2020. His story embodies the very spirit of the Olympic dream.
The scene is the women’s 400m final at the London 2012 Olympics - a moment that changed the life of Privel Hinkati, a Beninese athlete who will be the first rower to ever represent the country when he competes at Tokyo 2020.
However, Hinkati wasn’t competing that night in London.
Instead he was sitting at the stands of the Olympic stadium with his older sister Pernelle. It was the second Games they had attended as spectators. But that night, something dawned on him.
“I want to do this,” Hinkati said to his sister.
And that is how his Olympic journey began.
Naturally, the 31-year-old knew that he would not compete at the Olympics in athletics. But what he didn’t know at the time was the name of the country he would represent on the world’s biggest sporting stage. Hinkati, who was born in Caen, France, to two Beninese parents, holds dual citizenship.
“Alright. But do you want to race for Benin or France?” asked his sister.
“I think for Benin. It will be bigger,” said Hinkati. “For France it would only be about the sport. With Benin, I would have to start from scratch: no federation, no funding, no boats…nothing. Nobody in the country knows the sport. That’s why I chose Benin."
Getting a taste for the Games
Hinkati claimed his ticket to Tokyo last October in the African qualifiers in Tunisia, where he finished fifth in the final. There and then, he knew that he would go to the next Olympics, not as a spectator but as an Olympic athlete - something he had dreamt about for a long time.
Behind every Olympian is an Olympic tale, and Hinkati’s is a special one: He travelled from one Games to another along with his sister, and even had the chance to go to Athens 2004 following a project in his hometown, but as he was the youngest child, he gave the chance to one of the older kids.
For Hinkati, every Olympics has a special flavour.
“In Beijing, the crowd went crazy. We arrived two hours beforehand and it was calm, but at some point there were millions of people everywhere."
"In London, the Olympic stadium was literally shaking. I felt the tension in the races. In Rio, I remember the final of the lightweight double sculls final, when the French pair Pierre Houin and Jérémie Azou won gold. There was such a good atmosphere."
Introducing rowing to Benin
For four years Hinkati had been working hard to represent Benin at Rio 2016. Of course, “working hard” didn’t only mean training hard. Training was just a part of the journey. In 2012, there was no rowing federation in Benin, a country land-locked between Togo and Nigeria.
In fact, at that point, rowing didn’t exist in Benin.
Hinkati had to work with the local authorities and World Rowing to build a federation and grow the sport.
"The Federation now exists and is working. Everyone in Benin now knows what rowing is. We have about five rowing clubs in Benin, and close to 70 rowers," he said.
"Following my Olympic qualification, I even had the chance to compete in the African Rowing Championships in the double sculls with Mahoutin Romain Akpo, and we finished fourth."
Quite impressive for a country where the sport didn’t exist only a decade earlier. And with that, the first part of his mission was complete.
Failure at the first attempt
The second part of his mission began in earnest. Now Hinkati had to find the money to pay for his training, equipment, travel costs and a physio. The rower from the Société Nautique de Caen club in France launched a crowdfunding campaign as he struggled to secure French sponsors.
"I live and train in France but since I don’t represent the national team, it’s difficult to find money as a Beninese rower. It was a big challenge to explain my project, to raise funds, when I decided to take a different professional approach."
"Crowdfunding was successful because I tried to show them that they are not just supporting my effort but my dream… it’s a different kind of sponsorship."
Yet despite all of his best efforts, he failed to qualify for Rio 2016. It was a disaster for the rower.
It was one of the most difficult moments in my life. I put so much effort in, I put everything into it.
I didn’t expect to not qualify.
It was my dream.
However, Hinkati never gave up on his dream. He took time off to digest his disappointment. And finally, he got back on the boat.
"Many of my friends and family told me I’d never be happy if I didn’t give it another go, because I would always be saying, ‘what if?’"
His American coach Reilly Dampeer, the head coach of the US Rowing National High Performance Center in Oklahoma City, also played a key role.
“She told me that now I’d know how to react and what to do on the course, and that I’d be more experienced and stronger.”
And being in the crowd for the Rio 2016 rowing competition actually helped Hinkati qualify for Tokyo, as that day he made a promise to himself.
“‘OK, now I’m watching the action. But in four years in Tokyo, I’m going to be on the water’. It was a huge source of inspiration,” he said.
But one thing more than anything else kept his mind on the mission.
"The Olympic dream. Yes, the Olympic dream."
When I qualified, I kept rowing past the finish line.
I kept rowing towards the second and third rings.
I didn’t want to take any chances. I just wanted to be sure.
Success at the second attempt
Four years later, Hinkati qualified for Tokyo 2020. You can imagine what it must have felt like to realise his dream had come true… but in fact, he hadn’t realised.
"When I qualified, I kept rowing past the finish line. I kept rowing towards the second and third rings. I didn’t want to take any chances. I just wanted to be sure. It wasn’t until the announcer said, ‘everyone must stop now’ that I stopped."
The second part of the mission was complete. A dream had come true.
Hinkati could also allow himself to feel relieved as he had proven to everyone that with determination, everything is possible.
"A lot of people in rowing clubs in France called me crazy to even imagine or dream about qualifying for the Olympics. I remembered all of that when I qualified. I told myself, ‘I am not crazy or a liar'."
He then began a second crowdfunding campaign. It was another success. And actually, this was the reason some people called him a liar.
"Some people thought that I was maybe even raising funds just for my personal use."
Togo but not to go
Not only had Hinkati become the first Beninese rower to qualify for the Olympics, he had also introduced his country to the international rowing community and become a representative of black people within the sport. It’s something he is extremely proud of.
"A lot of people keep asking me this. Especially at this time when there is a focus on black people and diversity," said Hinkati.
“Previously, at World Cups and World Championships, I would usually be one of a handful of black athletes competing. There was maybe a Cuban, a Togolese. When I was registering, they would ask 'What country are you from?' and I would say Benin. They would ask, ‘Is that a country?’ It was funny."
"A lady from Togo arrived at the registration desk and was asked what country she was from. She said 'I’m from Togo'. The man told her, 'I'm sorry I want to know what country you’re from, not where you want to go'. Then she told them, 'There is a country called Togo!’
"Over the last two years, they now recognise me and announce proudly, ‘Ah, Benin is here!’ They now recognise the Benin flag on my boat and oars."
From 5am until 8pm
The third part of Hinkati’s Olympic quest is now in progress. He is training so that he can represent Benin to the best of his abilities at Tokyo 2020. Even if the main goal was qualification, he still has something to aim for at the Sea Forest Waterway where the rowing competition will be held.
"I will be happy if I finish in the top 20. I will enjoy it and give it my best."
In order to achieve that, the computer engineer who works in Caen’s town hall is dedicating all of his free time to rowing. With a full-time job, finding that free time is often difficult. But difficult doesn’t mean impossible, as Privel Hinkati has proved.
A typical day in the life of Hinkati would make most people dizzy. But when you are dreaming of the Olympics, you make it work.
"I wake up at 5.07am. The alarm is set for 4.50am or 5am. If I put the alarm on snooze it can’t go past 5.07am, otherwise my timing will be bad. By 6am I am in the water, rowing until 8am. Then I have to be at the office by 9am. I work until noon. I work out during my lunch break. I go back to the office until 6pm. I train from 6.30pm to 8pm. I go back home, have dinner and go to bed between 10 and 11pm. That’s every weekday."
He also trains twice or three times on Saturday, and once on Sunday.
Sometimes he struggles, but his Olympic dream, which is constantly with him on his phone case, is stronger than any negative thoughts he might have.
"When I am lying on my bed struggling to get out to train, and I have all sorts of excuses and reasons running through my mind, like ‘I’m too tired, the weather is bad…’ I remember today is my chance to be better. And I cannot be better in my bed. At that moment I quickly get up."
"I must be on top of my game in order to row at the Olympics."