By Craig Lord
SYDNEY, Sept. 20. ERIC Moussambani, from Equatorial Guinea, learned to swim in January when
his nation established its first aquatics federation. Yesterday he stepped onto his blocks in baggy blue trunks, drawstrings dangling and untied, to make his Olympic debut in the 100 meter freestyle.
It was a nervous moment for the 22-year-old, who fumbled with his goggles with the dexterity of a child handling a pen for the first time. Two lengths amounted to 100 meters but Moussambani, one of 11 from his country in Sydney, had only ever raced over 50 metres before in a 20-meter-long pool, and the Olympic waters of the Sydney International Aquatic Centre stretched out before him like a marathon course.
Beside him were two bodysuited swimmers, Niger's Karim Bare – who was anything but – and Farkhod Oripov, of Tajikistan, all three invited to Sydney under the friendship funding programme organised by FINA, swimming's global authority.
The starter called the swimmers to their marks. Moussambani, 5ft 7in, held steady. The taller bodysuits wobbled, fell in and were cast out of the
race under the no false-start rule, their Olympic Games over. The 18,000-crowd booed but the judge would have none of it.
Moussambani would plough a lonely lane for his finest 1 minute 52.72 second (40.97-1:11.75) though it felt like an hour. The gun fired and Equatorial Guinea's aquatic answer to Eddie the Eagle – Eric the Eel – plunged into the lane in which Ian Thorpe had raced to a silver medal in 1min 45sec over double the distance the day before.
At first, the crowd clapped politely. But the mood turned upon Moussambani's turn, for here was a man with an Olympic courage bigger than Thorpe's feet. Confusion reigned for a moment – was he facing up or down, and did he know himself? A sense of relief washed over the pool as the man from Molabu surfaced to take a breath.
The largely Australian crowd – nearly every man, woman and child probably capable of swimming faster than Moussambani – warmed to the occasion and lifeguards stood by poised to plunge in for the rescue as the
swimmer's stroke shortened, and his legs sank from the surface.
With a final desperate lunge, Moussambani was safe. It would be some while before he could get dry; an hour after clambering shattered on to the deck, he had still not made it through the gauntlet of cameras,
microphones and media.
His time would have been a world Masters record–in the 100 to 104 year group, the speed of 97-year-old
Gus Langner from the United States still a target on his way to Athens 2004.
Moussambani, who works in information technology, sent "kisses and hugs to the whole crowd", and, speaking in Spanish and French, added: "I could hear them cheering and it helped me to get to the end. I didn't want to swim 100 meters but my coach told me that I should do it anyway – I thought it was too much but thanks to the crowd, I made it."
His mother and three younger siblings – his father is dead – would watch his great moment on television the next day. They had already seen him once. "I carried the flag at the opening ceremony because they needed a
small swimmer to do it, and nobody knew who I was. But now, when I go home, everyone will know me," he said.
Moussambani was later to be found celebrating his new-found fame. "I'm going to jump and dance all night long in celebration of my personal triumph," said the slowest swimmer in Sydney who became more famous than
Thorpe for an hour at the Olympic Games yesterday.