The Olympic spirit is about a lot more than winning medals and setting records. Just look at the story of swimmer Eric Moussambani.
It took one minute and fifty-two seconds for Eric Moussambani to go from an unknown athlete to a Sydney Olympics cult hero.
The Equatoguinean found his passion for swimming shortly after high school. At the time, he did not know how to swim, but he knew that it was a sport that he wanted to pursue. Unfortunately, he found difficulty gaining access to swimming pools that he could use to learn how to swim.
European football, a sport introduced to Equatorial Guinea by the Spanish colonists who inhabited the country for 190 years, is far and away the most popular sport in Moussambani’s home country. Living in such a football-crazed country, it was difficult for Moussambani to find a place to train consistently.
Eventually, he found a 13-meter sized hotel pool that he only had access to three hours a week. On days he could not use the pool, he trained in rivers and the Atlantic Ocean, with the local fisherman guiding him on how to use his legs and arms to stay afloat.
After about eight months of swimming, he gained entry into the 2000 Summer Olympics through a program where the IOC gives several sport governing bodies’ wildcards’ to developing nations to promote their respective sport further.
Eric Moussambani’s trip to the Olympics was the first time he ever left his country
In his first time leaving his country, it took about three days and several layovers for Moussambani to travel from Equatorial Guinea to Australia. In Sydney, Moussambani saw an Olympic-size swimming pool for the first time, with the pool at the Sydney International Aquatic Centre being 50 meters.
The swimming pool was so big that Moussambani said he was was “so scared” to compete in it, feeling as if it was much too big compared to what he was used to.
In the days leading up to the event, Moussambani trained simultaneously as the American swim team, which allowed him to study their techniques. He also would go around asking other swimmers and trainers for advice. Some would ignore him, but others lent a helping hand. A South African coach, who first double-checked that Moussambani was an athlete competing at the Games, worked with him to improve his approach. The coach also saw him wearing a pair of Bermuda shorts that he’d bought at a second-hand shop and gave him a proper swim brief and goggles, telling Moussambani that his outfit was not regulation and that he’d be disqualified.
Due to the extra help, Moussambani felt a bit more confident going into his race. There was just one problem.
“I didn’t know how to coordinate my breathing,” Moussambani said in an Olympic interview.
Come the day of the 100m freestyle, Moussambani was in the first heat along with Niger’s Karim Bare and Tajikistan’s Farkhod Oripov.
“I was afraid of doing something that people would laugh at… But a voice in my mind just said, ‘Go for it, you can do it.’”
Both swimmers were disqualified for starting the race too early, leaving a petrified Moussambani as the only man in his heat. Not only were the eyes of the 17 000 spectators solely on him, but the billions watching the Games that day, from all over the world.
“I thought I was the one who was disqualified. When the referee told me I was the one who had to swim, that made me even more nervous because I knew that everyone was watching me.”
Moussambani made an energetic start in the first 50 meters, but all the effort he exerted initially, plus his lack of learning proper breathing technique, caught up to him. In the final half of the race, he struggled to stay afloat, so much so that those on the sidelines contemplated jumping in and helping him out of the water.
“It was then that I started to hear the crowd screaming and shouting, encouraging me to ‘Go, go, go.’ It gave me the strength to finish.”
Moussambani finished the race with a time of 1:52.72, the slowest recorded time in Olympic history, but the fans did not care, cheering him as if he had shattered the world record.
“I was the first swimmer from my country to compete in the 100m freestyle in an international competition. I was so happy that I did it; even if my time was not very good, I did it.”
Nicknamed Eric the Eel, Moussambani quickly became a media sensation, with the then 22-year-old thrust into a whirlwind of press tours, sponsorships, interviews, and events.
By 2004, Moussambani halved his personal best time to 56.9. And by 2006, he swam it in 52.18, his best time ever. Unfortunately, he was unable to compete in Athens during the 2004 Olympics due to a passport issue. By then, all the sponsorships and media hype had died down, and to this day, he wishes he could have shown the world his improvement.
Knowing that Moussambani was a legitimate athlete definitely changes his perception for the better, but that day in Sydney still defines him.
He now juggles two jobs: a worker at an oil company and a coach for Equatorial Guinea’s national swim team. Gone are the days where aspiring Equatoguinean swimmers need to train in open water. They now have the option of two Olympic-sized swimming pools.
“This is what the Olympics are all about,” a commentator declared after Moussambani finished his race, rather foolishly, as the Olympics aren’t really about plucky underdogs. But anyone can take be inspired by what Moussambani achieved because we’ve all been where he was. On his own, out of his depth, and just trying to stay afloat. No wonder he struck a chord.