It was a humid and sticky April morning in 2000 when a 22-year old Eric Moussambani was listening to the radio at home in his native Malabo, the ramshackle capital city of Equatorial Guinea. His ears pricked up as an announcement crackled out over the airwaves: would members of the public who wanted to try for a place in the national Olympic swimming squad please make themselves known. Eric smiled to himself and shrugged his shoulders; he had barely swam before in his life, but in the naively gung-ho style that would soon have the world infatuated with the young Guinean, he decided to give it a go.
Of the country’s 676,000 population, Eric was the only one who bothered to show up for the trial, and so was selected for the Sydney Games by default. Equatorial Guinea were allowed to send Eric to the Olympics without meeting the minimum qualification requirements due to a wildcard draw that encouraged developing countries without the resources for expensive training facilities to compete. And so Eric the Eel was born…
The man above doesn’t look like an Equatorial Guinean novice. He looks like a genetically engineered human torpedo. That man is Pieter van den Hoogenband. He has three Olympic golds, and was the 100m and 200m champion at the 2000 games. But you’ve most likely never heard his name before, because he was outshone by a West-African who couldn’t swim.
Eric was obviously an Olympic swimming virgin. He’d never even seen a 50 metre pool before, but now he was in his Speedos and had access to one, nothing was going to stop him diving in and flailing about like a drowning cat in goggles until the job was done. Eric had started swimming only eight months before the Olympics, training at weekends in the river or the sea, without any coaching. His first time in a pool was in May of that year, when he splashed about in a 20m one at a hotel in Malabo.
For most 100m swimmers, turning for the return leg is a well rehearsed and vital manoeuvre. For Eric it was a genuine surprise. Someone had managed to royally screw up translating the numbers, and Equatorial Guinea’s contender arrived in Sydney without even a proper understanding of the event he was in, thinking the 100m freestyle was a 50m race.
|"Hello, I'm here for dressage."|
Eric lined up to begin the race with two other swimmers, whose sleek amphibian spandex could not have contrasted more with his own ordinary Speedos ...but they were both disqualified for false starts. So this left Eric standing on his starting block, about to compete in a race twice as long as one he knew he wasn’t ready for, in front of the world, on his own. This is a man who would struggle to get a Puffin Badge, about to swim in the Olympics.
Faced with this impossible challenge and the prospect of more public humiliation than the whole of Youtube combined, Eric did the only thing he could. He jumped in face first.
Eric doggy-paddled stubbornly through his first length, legs askew and arms slapping clumsily through the water. He reached the side after 40 seconds, then did what was possibly the first tumble-turn he had ever attempted in his life. This awkward twist underwater led immediately to a change in tact from Eric. He converted his stroke from “almost useless” to “almost drowning” for the return leg. The scene couldn’t have been further removed from a typical Olympian demonstration of skill; even the BBC commentator seemed certain Eric would require a rescue from the lifeguards - “Now I am convinced this guy is going to have to get hold of the lane rope...he doesn’t look like he’s going to make it.”
Needless to say, Eric didn’t qualify. He didn’t nearly qualify. He barely even survived the race and made it out of the pool. In a sport defined by tenths of a second, Eric came in at over double the world record. But he did finish the race, managing a time of 1minute 52.72 seconds, and exhibited a degree of bravery not seen since Graeme Souness planted a Galatasary flag in the middle of the Fenerbahce pitch in 1996. His performance remains a powerful reminder, in this hyper-professionalised world of sport, of the power of the novice to inspire hope in the lives of the ordinary.
Eric has since vastly improved, cutting his own 100m freestyle record down to 57 seconds. Now aged 34, he is an IT engineer and coaches the Equatorial Guinea national swimming team in their new Olympic sized swimming pool.
By George Odling