In the ultra competitive arena of professional sports it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, that in sport, it’s the taking part that’s important. In the Summer Olympics in Sydney 2000 a swimmer, Eric Moussambani, from the tiny nation of Equatorial Guinea reminded the world just what it’s all about.
Moussambani had only learned to swim eight months before the Olympics and before the event he had never even seen an Olympic-sized swimming pool (50 metres), all his training had been done in a 20-metre pool in a hotel in Malabo, alone, with no coach and nobody to clock his best efforts. Qualification for the Olympics was gained only through a wildcard draw, which was put in place to encourage developing countries that did not have expensive training facilities.
The oil-rich nation of Equatorial Guinea, ruled by Teodoro Obiang, Africa’s longest serving ruler, consistently makes the list of countries notorious for the worst human rights records in the world. The country's considerable wealth lies in the hands of only a few, while the rest of the population live in abject poverty.
So it was that Eric found himself standing up to the starting block for the first qualifying heat of the men's 100m freestyle at the Olympics in Sydney against Karim Bare of Niger and Farkhod Oripov of Tajikistan. Overeagerness saw both of Eric’s competitors jump the gun and get disqualified for false starts, leaving the Equatorial Guinean alone on the blocks before the world and looking utterly unsure of himself.
After some deliberation by the officials it was deemed that Moussambani would have to swim the 100m alone against the clock in order to achieve the minimum qualifying time of 1 minute 110 seconds. Eric dived into the pool on the buzzer in a convincing manner and started his front crawl in the way you would expect an Olympic swimmer to. However, it quickly became apparent that Moussambani was no olympian and he tired quickly. He slowed to a snail’s place and despite his best efforts, began to flail hopelessly in the water.
The Aquatic Centre in Sydney was packed with 17,000 spectators all watching Eric. The crowd hushed as they realised that this swimmer was really struggling to finish the 100 metres, let alone achieve a qualifing time. As Moussambani spun in the water to start his second length he looked beat and it looked like he might have to stop. But just then things started to change. The 17,000 people in the Aquatic Centre got behind the man in the pool. As Eric flapped and flailed away pushing his body as hard as he could the sound became deafening. Cheered on by 17,000 people, Eric made the full length.
This was a rare and stark exposition of the goodwill that is, not only the foundation on which the whole Olympic concept is built but is also the cohesive elements that brings all nations together, weak and strong, poor and rich together in the spirit of the competition. As professional athletes continue to push the boundaries of the possible, winning becomes increasingly central, it was the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin who said “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well".
A beaming Eric Moussambani, interviewed on camera after his swim was transmitted into a millions of homes and he became an over-night celebrity, the world’s media dubbed him ‘Eric the Eel’. “The first 50 metres were OK, but in the second 50 metres I got a bit worried and thought I wasn't going to make it,” said the elated swimmer. "Then something happened. I think it was all the people getting behind me. I was really, really proud. It's still a great feeling for me and I loved when everyone applauded me at the end. I felt like I had won a medal or something.”
For the rest of the event Moussambani was a celebrity who came to embody the very spirit of the Games. Some sporting purists had their noses knocked out of joint by the wildcard system which allowed a much lower level competition to be on display in what should be a platform for the world’s finest. This eventually saw the system scaled back significantly in an effort to ‘preserve standards’.
Back home in Equatorial Guinea, Moussambani, was hailed as a national hero, although to some of the country's ruling elite the attention paid to Moussambani’s heroic failure was a cause of national embarrassment. On his return, the media attention and sponsorships quickliy dried up and Eric hit the pool with new vigour and with very hard training managed to improve his personal best from 1min 57.2sec to under 57 seconds. It was however, beginning to seem as if the Equatorial Guinean government were determined that Eric should not again represent his country and barriers were placed in front of his progress time after time – an offer of a scolarship at an American University was withdrawn because of beaurocratic blundering. Nevertheless Eric continued to train harder than ever and by the time the Olympics came around in Athens in 2004 the media spot light came upon him once again.
Moussambani was determined to show the world that he could do better, but as his sponsorships had all but disappeared and with no help coming from the government it was looking increasingly unlikely that he would get the chance to compete in the Olympics again. Further bureaucratic blunders thwarted Eric’s dream of competing in Athens as a photo for his accreditation was mysteriously mislaid meaning he could not travel.
Eric’s story does not finish there however, and we are at last set for a triumphant return to the Olympic stage, not a as an athlete but as the coach of Equatorial Guinea’s swimming team. Having in the meantime qualified as an engineer he has been working in the oil sector in the oil-rich state. "He will have to reconcile his work in the oil world with his new responsibility as national coach," said an Equatorial Guinea government spokesperson. There will be some reception for him there, of that you can be sure, unlikely as it may be, he is one of the Olympic icons of modern times.
By Hugo Mc Cafferty