Blessing Afrifah is a name that fans of athletics, especially those who follow track and field will be hearing from for a very long time as the Israeli sprinter impressed at the Under-20 Athletic Championships held in Cali, Colombia by capturing the gold medal in the 200 meter dash.
By running a 19.96 in the summer heat of South America, the Israeli 18-year old just beat out favorite Leslie Tebogo from Botswana by only six thousandths of a second to become the first Israeli runner to win a gold medal in the event.
“Is it true? Did it happen? I am the world champion!,” a stunned Afrifah declared after finding out that he had indeed won the gold medal in the 200 meter race. “I didn’t think it was going to be such a good run but during the race I understood that I had a good chance. I ran against some great competitors and it was very tense while we waited for the result after a photo finish, but I knew that I left it all on the track. I want to dedicate the win to my family, my coach and all of the people of Israel.”
With the victory, Afrifah has proven that not only is he a true Israeli success story by holding the domestic record in the two top sprints but his battle to be recognized as a citizen by the government was well worth the effort.
Born to Ghanian parents in Israel, Afrifah’s quest to be considered a full fledged Israeli and the opportunity to represent the country that he grew up in and loves dearly was quite the battle. In 2010, Blessing along with the rest of the family were given residency for the purpose of not deporting children of foreign workers who were born in Israel and that also met various criteria. However, as he continued to grow and mature and become a running sensation he still could not enter a competition as an Israeli.
Afrifah always looked at himself as Israeli as his friends and classmates were Sabras and didn’t know anything other than that as he knew that he wanted to do the best that he could for the country that he had been raised in. Finally at the age of 16 in 2020, Afrifah was granted citizenship by then interior minister Aryeh Deri as his dream of wearing blue-and-white while representing Israel was now at his fingertips.
As a child, Afrifah wanted to be a soccer player and even trained at Maccabi Tel Aviv for a short period of time as he dreamed of being the next Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, but when he was 11 a teacher in school recommended that he give spiriting a shot and from there as they say, the rest is history. It was back to Maccabi Tel Aviv but this time to the athletics department where he joined forces with coach Igor Balon who began giving Afrifah his first lessons in track and field.
At the age of 16, Afrifah began to hit a number of benchmarks in sprinting as he dropped his time in the 100 meters to below 11 seconds to 10.85 and under 22 seconds to 21.67 in the 200 meter dash which made him realize that he could reach the heights of the great runners be it Michael Johnson or even Usain Bolt.
Last year, Afrirah represented Israel at the youth championships in Estonia and even led the 100 meter race but finished in a respectable 4th place, however, not on the podium.
This year having run a 19.96 not only was good to win the race but also set a 13 year old European record in the 200 meters. Before even running in the final, Afrifah had to race in a number of qualifiers where he progressively saw his time improve. From 20.55 to 20.37 in the preliminaries to 20.17 in the semifinals, Afrifah saw his time steadily decrease to finally run under 20 seconds to capture gold.
However, even more impressive than shaving off .59 of a second is the fact that Afrifah ran the final 100 meters of the 200 meter dash in 9.96 seconds which gives real hope to Israeli track aficionados.
Israel has rarely produced top-level runners in short track events as the last male to represent the country in serious competition was Donald Sanford. While Esther Roth-Shahamorov ran during the 1970’s and was the first Israeli athlete to ever reach a finals when she ran in the 100 meter hurdles at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, two newer faces on the women’s side have already made an impact and will look to also hold the torch high for the blue-and-white.
Diana Vaisman at 24-years old currently holds the women’s 100 and 200 meter domestic record while 33-year old Lonah Chemtai Salpeter recently captured a bronze medal in the marathon at the World Championships with the hope that nth will be a threat at the 2024 Olympics on Paris, France.
With Afrifah now on the world’s radar, the question will be how much more he will be able to improve on his time and potentially be able to compete with the best of the best with being drafted to the IDF looming in just a few months from now.
There’s no question that Afrifah does have a chance to reach the highest of heights but in order to do that he will need to continue on his quest with the same focus and seriousness that he began with years ago when he decided to enter the world of sprinting. Should he do that, then the entire nation of Israel will be the wind at his back and help push him towards the front of the pack.