Swimming in Sydney

“We want to avoid what happened in swimming in Sydney. “The public loved it, but I did not like it.”  

(IOC President Jaques Rogge in a 2003 interview.)

He was talking about the Summer Olympics three years earlier.

So, what happened in swimming in Sydney?

It was the heats for the 100 metre Freestyle.

Swimmer Eric Moussambini had qualified for his place on the starting blocks through a wild card scheme designed to give athletes from developing countries a chance to compete on the world stage.

6 years earlier, the same scheme allowed Michael Edwards from Cheltenham, Gloucester, to compete in the ski jump at the Calgary Winter Olympics. He was ranked 55th in the world and was the only GB competitor in the event.
Virtually self funded and wearing glasses which misted up under his ski mask, the media and the public loved him.
Those of us who remember him know him better as ‘Eddie the Eagle Edwards’

Scroll forward again to September 19th 2000 in the Olympic Pool, Sydney.

Just three swimmers lined up for the first heat.

Amazingly two of them false started and were disqualified.  That left Eric Moussambini to race alone.

Less than 5 seconds into the solo swim, nobody watching that day could quite believe their eyes.

I was one of millions around the world watching open mouthed in front of the TV.

We watched amazed as this lone swimmer turned at the end of the first 50 metres in what many regard as the blue riband event of any swimming programme. Responding to what was unfolding before their very eyes the crowd began to cheer him on.

Adrian Moorhouse, commentator for the BBC was incredulous. “This guy doesn’t look like he’s going to make it.” “I am convinced this guy is going to have to get hold of the lane rope in a moment”.

The time of 1min 52.72sec is the slowest time in Olympic history of the event. The Guardian newspaper reporter noted that it was “seven seconds longer than it had taken the Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe to swim exactly twice the distance in the same pool the previous day.” [1]

And suddenly everyone wanted to know what had just happened. The media dubbed him Eric the Eel.

Somewhat bemused by all the attention then, and in later interviews, Eric explained that when he arrived in Sydney he was still learning to coordinate his breathing.

Ring any bells? said the swimming teacher.

Recalling the event twenty years later he said “At the end of the race, I felt grateful above all because at least I had been able to represent my country, because I had managed to finish those 100 metres, which I had never done before.”[2]
Some claimed later that in fact he had entered the 50m Freestyle and was stunned when he saw his name on the line up for the 100 metres?

Another wild card and more controversy about the scheme. Something the IOC president was trying to address when he referred to swimming in Sydney three years later![3]

Many times, at the mention of his name I have tried to imagine what this whole experience was like for him from start to finish.

An experience which began when he responded to his country’s swimming federation’s search for a swimmer to represent them; a country of less than a million people.

What we only discover afterwards is that with eight months to go before the Games, he was just learning to swim.
Someone offered him a few hours a week to practice, in a small pool at a hotel. He had to be there very early, before the guests woke up.

With a commitment that draws only admiration, the rest of the time, it seems, he ‘trained’ in rivers and in the sea.

“Just not to be sinking”

“The fishermen were teaching me how to move my legs and arms- not professional swimmers but how to swim …how to learn…just to be not sinking !!”[4]

DOES THAT RING ANY BELLS? (Said the Swimming Teacher)

When he arrived in Sydney he had £50 spending money.
He recalls how that when he saw the 50 metre Olympic Pool for the first time he “was scared”. He carried the Equatorial New Guinea flag in the opening ceremony. [1]

He was informed that he was scheduled to train at the same time as the team from the USA.

He confessed later that, alone, in his practice sessions he didn’t swim the whole length. People started asking him if he was in the right place. He was grateful when one national coach offered to help….“with my arms and legs”

There is something both surreal, amazing and enduring about the story.

The Olympic Flame kind of lights up something which still draws us in.
Eric Moussambi himself radiates something we all recognise, something much closer to our hearts and minds not just in sport but in life.

He became a figurehead for swimming in Equatorial Guinea, which now has two Olympic-size pools.
“I am a national coach in the swimming federation of Equatorial Guinea, my life has changed completely. I work to ensure that our country has good swimmers, teaching them the fundamentals of swimming.” [2]

He was named by the National Swimming Federation (FINA) and the Equatorial Guinean Olympic Committee (COGE) as head coach of the Equatorial Guinea swim team.

The founder of the modern Olympic games talked about the taking part rather than the winning.

He added “the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”

Does that ring any bells? Said the Swimming Teacher.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2012/jan/25/olympic-games-eric-eel-moussambani

[2] https://scroll.in/field/973523/couldnt-swim-didnt-know-olympics-eric-eel-moussambani-looks-back-on-iconic-sydney-2000-moment

[3] IOC President Rogge: “We want to avoid what happened in swimming in Sydney,” he said. “The public loved it, but I did not like it. We have to respect the athletes. The Olympic Games are a mixture of pure quality, that is the best athletes in the world, and at the same time athletes of a lesser quality who achieve universality. If you decide to have only the best ones, then you maybe only have fifty per cent of the nations participating, so you need to give some universality. However, the level of those people must be raised, and that is what we are going to do with Olympic Solidarity.” https://olympics.com/ioc/news/olympic-review-makes-stories  Wild cards do still exist – but athletes who are given wild cards must reach a minimum technical sporting standard, as outlined by the relevant International Federation for their sport.

[4] I chanced upon a You tube video recently, which brought this all back to me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDqwYUe_U7I (you’ll have to put up with advert breaks.) One thing occurred to me. Having swum in rivers and the sea, the temperature of the pool would not have phased him at all. Unlike my young club swimmers the first time I took them to swim in the  50-metre competition pool at Millfield School. https://www.millfieldenterprises.com/community-use/public-swimming