SEARCH 2000 Games

Tuesday, September 19, 2000

Thank Eric for the memory

 SYDNEY -- The crowd at the Sydney International Aquatic Centre came to its feet as the swimmer hit the final 10 metres, sensing they were seeing something special, something memorable, something so very Olympic.

 The fatigue was clearly there on the swimmer's face in the final seconds of his 100m freestyle heat and he touched the wall with one last, desperate lurch and the crowd exploded.
Eric Moussambani, of Equatorial Guinea, competes alone in the first heat of the men's 100m freestyle Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2000 at the Sydney International Aquatic Center during the Summer Olympics in Sydney. (AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy)

 They had seen another world record, but not one that will live in the books, but in the hearts of many who were there to see it.

 When 22-year-old Eric Moussambani of Equitorial Guinea, on the west coast of Africa, pulled himself out of the pool, the clock read one minute, 52.72 seconds.

 That was more than a minute slower than the qualifiers for the 100m final and 50 seconds slower than the next slowest man in the field.

 Hey, what do you want from a guy who started swimming in January, had just swam 100m for the first time in his life and was swimming alone in the pool in front of a big crowd after his two fellow competitors had been disqualified for false starts?

 While the other swimmers were outfitted in FastSkin body suits, Moussambani wore a terrycloth brief, the white draw strings hanging out over the waistband.

 On the draw sheet, Moussambani was credited with a qualifying time of 1:10.00. He couldn't swim that if you conceded him the first 25 metres. The time was put there because the computer couldn't handle a time for the 100m any higher.

 Watching him lurch towards the finish, arms and water flying, you were comforted in the knowledge the best swimmers in the world were in the building and could jump in and save him if need be.

 Mossambani should have taken note there is no "Life Guard On Duty" sign on display when you walk in the door.

 The Sydney Internation Aquatic Centre has been the scene of the most dramatic events of these Games so far. Aussie ace Ian (Thorpedo) Thorpe has added to his lustre as a nation hero here, sparking the 17,500 that jam the swimming facility with two gold medal swims and his incredible duel with flying Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband Monday night in which Thorpe lost the gold in the 200m freestyle by a fingernail.

 It is Olympic competition at the summit.

 And then there was Moussambani, who only started swimming in January in the little 20-metre pool with no lanes a kilometre from his house, a little pool whose custodians won't let him in unless he's accompanied by the president of the country's swim federation.

 The janitors are probably afraid he'd drown if left on his own.

 After the two other swimmers in Moussambani's heat were disqualified, he said he thought about quitting himself rather than swim solo in front of the big crowd.

 But he kept going.

 "I never saw a crowd like that," he said, "I was a little scared. There is no crowd like that in my country. After 50 metres, I wanted to quit. My arms were tired.

 "But I couldn't stop. The crowd. Thanks to the crowd, I had the strength to finish. The crowd gave me power."

 While we in Canada grapple again with another athlete and drugs controversy and the Games themselves get lost in lawyerspeak and hidden behind arbitrators, we can thank an Eric Moussambani for putting a smile on our faces. (Well, at least we smiled when we knew for sure he was going to get out of the pool safely.)

 Van den Hoogenband and Thorpe and Moussambani wouldn't seem to have much in common except they get wet, but Moussambani brought the people in the Aquatic Centre to their feet, just as they had for The Flying Dutchman and Thorpedo.

 He gave them something the stars couldn't.

 Sometimes the race is its own reward.

 Sometimes it isn't about being the best or the fastest.

 Sometimes the Olympics is about an Eric Moussambani finding a way, not to win, but just to finish.