London, July 7
True Olympic spirit is often found away from gold medallists with their agents and sponsorship deals -- it is found in its purest sense in those that come last.
Swimmer Eric "The Eel" Moussambani and Paula Barila Bolopa may have made a splash in Sydney but only the best memories will recall Abdul Baser Wasiqi, Pyambuu Tuul, Charles Olemus, Mala Sakonninhom, Luvsanlkhundeg Otgonbayar, Mira Kasslin and Samia Hireche.
These athletes, however, would have impressed modern Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin who famously claimed in his native French: "L’important n’est pas de gagner, mais de participer (The important thing is not to win, but to take part)."
Moussambani, Balopa, Wasiqi and co knew they would be nowhere near the winners’ podium but, had he been alive, de Coubertin no doubt would have shaken their hands warmly considering them Olympic heroes.
Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea at first created mirth with his choppy action, head held up water polo style, in stark contrast to the smooth efficiency of the fastest 100m freestyle competitors.
His time of 1:52.72sec was the slowest ever 100m time and slower even than the 200m world record.
But laughter quickly turned to admiration for a man who had only learned to swim eight months earlier, had never been in a 50m pool and only competed in the 2000 Games because of a special invitiation designed to encourage nations without the best training facilities.
Later compatriot swimmer Barila Bolopa also gained Olympic hero status in front of a packed stadium, clocking the slowest ever women’s 50m Olympic time of 1:03.97.
Why did she gain an ovation from the spectators and have media microphones thrust in front of her on leaving the pool?
She brought out the spectators’ affection for a courageous, have-a-go hero who dared to compete knowing she would probably be the worst ever Olympian in that event.
Abdul Baser Wasiqi of Afganistan came last in the men’s marathon in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.
His case was different to Moussambani’s because he was a good marathoner, capable of close to 2hr 30min yet a hamstring injury had ruined his Olympic dreams and years of hard training.
He had the courage to run anyway, to "take part," quoting de Coubertin, and struggled round in 4hr 24min 17sec, finishing in 111th place out of 111 competitors about 90 minutes behind the second to last athlete.
He finished as officials were packing things away, preparing for the closing ceremony. Haiti’s Olemus was the worst men’s 10,000m runner in Montreal in 1976, clocking 42min 0.11sec, a time which recreational runners worldwide achieve.
Sakonninhom of Laos came last in the women’s 100m sprint in Seoul in 1988 and her 15.12sec would have been beaten by average high school sprinters.
Mongolian Otgonbayar came last in the women’s marathon in Athens in 2004, Finnish track cyclist Kasslin managed just 37.145sec in the women’s 500m time trial to come last in Sydney and Hireche of Algeria, competing in the women’s single sculls rowing event, came last in Atlanta in 1996, finishing in 9min 28.41sec.
The Olympic motto may be the Latin phrase "Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger) but spare a thought in London for those who are "Slower, Lower, and Weaker", for many of those are heroes too.