Eric The Eel: The Story Of A Sydney 2000 Olympics Legend

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Eric The Eel: The Story Of A Sydney 2000 Olympics Legend

Image: AFP

Eric Moussambani had never even seen an Olympic-sized swimming pool before arriving in Australia for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, but by the end of his legendary race in the 100-metre freestyle, Eric the Eel had become a household name.

Hailing from Equatorial Guinea, Eric Moussambani’s experience with swimming would certainly not have been of the same standard as Michael Phelps, Pieter van den Hoogenband or even Australia’s own Thorpedo, Ian Thorpe.

In fact, before the early summer of Sydney’s 2000 Olympic Games, Moussambani had only started training eight months prior in a 20-metre pool at a local hotel in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea’s capital city… but a single swim in the 100-metre heat would win the hearts of a nation.

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Eric Moussambani, of Equatorial Guinea, competes alone in the first heat of the men’s 100m freestyle. Image: AP Photo

Of course, Equatorial Guinea has a rich history on the waters, off the west coast of Central Africa, with the main commercial ports, such as Malabo and Bata, servicing the country’s artisanal fishing industry which played a crucial part in the local community – although swimming has never been much of a popular pastime.

During the build-up to Sydney’s celebrated Olympic Games, Moussambani was the benefit of the IOC’s wildcard system. Under the scheme, athletes from underrepresented nations could compete without meeting standard qualifying times to foster improved inclusivity from countries with less developed sports programs.

So, aged 22, Moussambani was preparing himself to represent his nation in the Sydney Olympics and write his name into the history books.

Eric Moussambani prepares to make history. Image: Getty

On 19 September 2000, Eric Moussambani arrived at Sydney International Aquatic Centre at the Olympic Park, a state-of-the-art facility approximately 16km west of the city’s CBD.

Moussambani was set to compete alongside Karim Bare and Farkhod Oripov, two unknown swimmers from Niger and Tajikistan. But in a bizarre twist of fate, the pair were disqualified for false starts in the heat, meaning Moussambani would swim the heat completely alone… and all eyes were on him as the starting gun sounded.

“In that last 50 metres, to be honest, I was so tired I was going to stop. I couldn’t feel my legs or arms, everything was very heavy. When I had people clapping and cheering my name, that gave me more power to finish.

Eric Moussambani

Moussambani dove into the water; the world’s media, Australian spectators and Olympic officials filled the room. It was apparent that the Equatorial Guinean didn’t have the same experience competing in an Olympic-sized pool and struggled to maintain his stroke and pace for the full length of the pool.

Moussambani finished the 100-metre race in 1 minute 52.72 seconds. Image: Getty

Despite his difficulties, Moussambani managed to complete the 100 metres. Although his time of 1 minute and 52.72 seconds was more than twice as slow as the next slowest swimmer, he was applauded with a standing ovation from the crowd and won the collective hearts of millions around the world.

Eric the Eel went down in history as the unlikely hero; his spirit of perseverance became emblematic of the Sydney 2000 Games, transcending sports to inspire countless individuals with an overarching message of participation over performance, and giving 100% effort against all odds.