The year 2000. Eric Moussambani was like any other youngster in Africa - active, athletic and curious, until he stumbled on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take part in the biggest sporting carnival on the planet - The Olympics.
Eric, who hails from Equatorial Guinea, a tiny, oil-rich country located in Central Africa, gained entry to the 2000 Sydney Olympics through a wild card ticket issued by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to encourage the participation of developing nations, despite not taking part in a single qualifying event leading up to the Games.
The novice swimmer did get a chance to train back home, as soon as he had learnt that he was going to be part of the Olympics, but it was in ponds and lakes, as there were no pools available in his country. However, this provided him with a dangerous challenge. The lakes in which he practised were sometimes thriving with crocodiles or sharks. Apart from the natural environment, he also briefly practised in a tourist pool in a resort, which was no more than 12m long. Despite all these adversities, he ensured he was ‘well-prepared’ for his big moment.
Moussambani, who had never stepped foot outside the borders of his country, prepared to represent his nation alongside two other countrymen and a female swimmer - Paula Bolopa. He proudly waved the flag as the country’s flagbearer during the opening ceremony.
The most astounding fact was that Moussambani had never come across a single 50m swimming
As the heats neared, Eric was seen in simple swimming trunks and goggles, nervously staring at the big crowd and waiting with two other competitors for the first heat in the 100m freestyle event. As things turned out, his two competitors were disqualified for false starts, leaving Moussambani perplexed and confused on the diving pad. He was then asked to finish his heat alone, something which definitely could have increased his anxiety.
As soon as Moussambani hit the waters in lane number 5, knowing that he would win the heat anyway, the capacity crowd knew that they were about to witness something unusual, something never witnessed before in the history of Olympics swimming! The lone swimmer waded through the lengthy pool in an uncharacteristic, amateurish manner, without a proper technique, finishing the first 50m relatively ‘quickly’ at 40.97 seconds. The commentator on the television described that he had never seen anything like that before. Another famously commented that Moussambani would not make it after all. It was only
At one point, it seemed as though the swimmer would not finish the race, as he heaved through the pool, with his entire body almost giving up. Then the 17,000-strong vociferous crowd egged him on to finish the race. A clearly exhausted Moussambani spent literally every last ounce of his energy so that he could complete his race. It was indeed a miracle that he stayed afloat the entire time during the course of the swim. The last 20 or 30m proved to be the most tortuous for the Equatorial Guinea international, as he almost crawled to the finish, with a timing of 1:52.72, making it one of the slowest Olympic swims ever, that too in the 100m freestyle event.
As soon as the race was over, the capacity crowd showed wonderful sportsmanship and rose to their feet to cheer in unison for the incredible perseverance shown by the youngster. Soon after, when asked how he felt about the race, Moussambani cheerfully exclaimed, “I’m feeling good, I’m happy.” He later admitted that he was clearly moved by the support from the crowd and that all the cheering helped him to finish the race.
With his laggard performance, he briefly achieved minor celebrity status during the Games, while also winning over thousands of hearts! Moments like these were what true spirit of the Olympics stood for in the first place, and Moussambani was a striking example of who epitomised the undying, unwavering quintessence of an athlete.
His attention-seeking exploits earned him the famous nickname ‘Eric the Eel’, coined by the press contingent in Sydney. To put things into perspective, his time in the 100m freestyle was seven seconds slower than the 200m freestyle world record at that time! For someone who started swimming just eight months prior to the start of the Games without any coach or support staff, Moussambani was glad that he did, at least get to finish the race, in spite of epic odds stacked against him. 16 years on, he is currently the swimming coach of the Equatorial Guinea team and the nation now boasts of two-Olympic sized pools.
Interestingly enough, Moussambani was not the only swimmer from Equatorial Guinea who gained popularity. His compatriot and female swimmer, Paula Bolopa too had a similar experience in Sydney. The footballer-turned-swimmer took part in the 50m freestyle event and clocked a whopping time of 1:03.97 in her heat. The crowd, yet again, cheered and encouraged the swimmer, who had just recorded the slowest possible time in the category. She was nicknamed ‘The Crawler’ for her swim.
Moussambani and Bolopa both became household names during the Sydney Olympics. Their never-say-die attitude garnered the world’s attention and made them the ‘lovable losers’ of the Games. Both of them were heroes in their own sense. Their performances showcased that the Games really stood for fair participation and importantly, completion more than winning.
Fast forward to the present day, the Olympic Games continue to produce many such stars, who show incredible courage to participate among the best in the world, despite facing many odds. The underdogs, as they are referred to as, are the real champions, who inspire every one of us through their tremendous perseverance, apart from being a role model to a new generation of athletes who aim big. For such brave souls, only the sky is the limit!