Remembering the personal side of the Olympics, in the pool and out

There was a lot to be learned from Eric the Eel, kicking and flailing his way through the Sydney Games.

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Until the 2012 Olympics, I didn’t realise that the schedule for every Games is roughly the same: all the swimming in the first week; athletics in the second; the climax of the rowing on the middle Saturday. London was the only Olympics I covered in person as a sportswriter, and I remember thinking, “What? This stadium is only used for a week? This Aquatics Centre will be abandoned halfway through?”

But when the schedule really hit home for me personally was on the middle Saturday, with the final of the coxless fours. Twelve years previously, during the Sydney Olympics of 2000, I had watched this rowing race, very late, on the TV with my sister Kay at a hospice. The next morning, she had died.

I had been accredited for Sydney, but I hadn’t gone. Instead, I was writing about the Games each morning from the overnight TV coverage (staying with my mum), then spending the afternoon and evening with my sister. It didn’t help that my mum and my sister hadn’t spoken for seven years, and that Kay had made me promise never to raise the subject. At the hospice, she chain-smoked, sixty a day. When she wasn’t smoking, she was wearing an oxygen mask. My niece one day pointedly offered me a fag (“This would be a good time to take it up,” she explained).

And all the while, on the other side of the world, people were doing glorious things, to the soundtrack of Heather Small’s “Proud”. “I step out of the ordinary,” it went. “I can feel my soul ascending.” Sixteen years later, I can’t hear this song without blubbing.

On day four of the Games came a moment that has come to symbolise this long, vivid week of my life: the valiant, death-defying swim of Eric Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea in the first heat of the 100 metres freestyle. You might remember it: he subsequently became famous as “Eric the Eel”. The thing was, Eric had learned to swim only recently. His heat contained just two other competitors, both of whom jumped the gun and were disqualified, so he had to swim the two lengths alone – a flailing, skinny swimmer, reaching and kicking and sinking. After 75 metres, fatigue abbreviated his stroke so badly that he threatened to stop moving altogether, and there was great concern that he might go under. But he kicked and kicked, and miraculously stayed afloat; when he reached the finish, he earned a standing ovation.

“This is what the Olympics are all about,” a commentator said, rather stupidly, because the Olympics aren’t really about plucky no-hopers, are they? But I have to say I took such heart from Eric. Out of his depth, on his own, just trying not to drown – no wonder he struck a chord. This year, by the way, the coxless fours final appears to be scheduled for the Friday, not the Saturday. I can’t tell you how relieved I am.

This article appears in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue