A legend in the pool
Eric Moussambani, a swimmer from Equatorial Guinea, gained entry to the 2000 Sydney Olympics on a wild card designed to allow athletes from developing countries to compete. Eight months before, Moussambani had been barely able to swim, teaching himself and training (without help from a coach) in a local hotel pool.
When he arrived in Sydney, Moussambani had never seen an Olympic-sized pool and the furthest distance he had trained for was 50 m. The qualifying heat of the men’s 100 m freestyle saw him pitted against just two other competitors – who were both disqualified after false starts. That left Moussambani to compete alone against the clock, watched by 17,000 spectators.
He started well, diving in confidently and looking pretty fast for the first ten or 15 seconds. But soon his progress became painfully, almost comically slow. Some wondered if he would even finish. Gasping for breath, yet roared on by the crowd, Moussambani eventually finished just under one minute, 53 seconds. It was his personal best, but also the slowest 100 m time in Olympic history. Indeed, Moussambani’s time was some seven seconds longer than it had taken Australian Ian Thorpe to swim exactly twice the distance in the same pool the day before.
Yet Moussambani – affectionately dubbed Eric the Eel and now the coach for Equatorial Guinea’s Rio swim team – became an instant legend for his pluck and heroic perseverance. As Thorpe observed: “This is what the Olympics is all about.”
Striking a blow for women
At the London 2012 Olympics, runner Sarah Attar (pictured right) finished last and more than a half-minute slower than her nearest competitor in her women’s 800 m heat. The response as she crossed the finishing line was a standing ovation from hundreds of spectators.
The reason? Covered head to toe and wearing a hijab, Attar had just become the first woman to compete in an Olympic track and field event for her country, Saudi Arabia. Her determination was seen as a significant victory for women’s rights in the patriarchal Middle Eastern state. “This is such a huge honour and an amazing experience, just to be representing the women,” Attar commented. “I know that this can make a huge difference.”
A selfless act
Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux returned home from the 1988 Seoul Olympics with a medal – if not the one he’d planned. By the time his race in the one-man Finn class came, the waters off Busan were choppy, with the wind blowing up to 35 knots, producing exceptionally steep waves.
Nonetheless, Lemieux forged ahead before noticing a capsized dinghy that had been competing for Singapore in a 470-class race. Both crew members were injured, one drifting in open water, the other clinging to the hull of their dinghy.
“I had to make a decision and once I realised the dynamics of the problem, there was no question,” Lemieux later explained. He abandoned his course to save the two sailors, dragging the men onto his boat. And after delivering the sailors to a rescue boat, Lemieux returned to his own race, still managing to finish 22nd out of 32.
Lemieux’s selfless action earned him the International Olympic Committee’s Pierre de Coubertin medal for an act of exceptional sportsmanship. “What I did, anyone would’ve done. What had to be done,” Lemieux later reflected. “It was no different than seeing someone in a car by the side of the road… who obviously needs help.”
Power of determination
Like many athletes, British runner Derek Redmond was plagued by injuries. He was forced to make a last-minute withdrawal from the 1988 Seoul Olympics because of an Achilles tendon injury, but four years later at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics he was a contender for a medal in the 400 m.
In the first round Redmond ran his fastest time in four years. In the semi-final, he started confidently. Then, 250?m in, disaster struck. Redmond pulled up in agony with a torn hamstring. That should have been the end of his Olympics. But determined not to be stretchered out of the Games, and despite his great pain, Redmond got on his feet and started hobbling round the track.
Then came another surprise. In the crowd was Redmond’s father. Concerned that his son would aggravate his injury, he made his way onto the track and, batting away officials, helped his anguished, tearful son limp to the finish line. The crowd cheered them.
A message to the world
It is an iconic image: African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos stand on the Olympic medal podium at the 1968 Mexico City Games, heads bowed and black-gloved fists raised during the playing of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’.
Their defiant silent protest against racial inequality – coming just six months after the assassination of US civil-rights leader Martin Luther King – infuriated the IOC. They demanded the men be suspended from the US Olympic team for violating the principle that politics should play no part in the Olympics. While the US team initially refused, when threatened with having the entire US track team suspended, they expelled Smith and Carlos from the Games.
The runners had warned the silver medallist in the race, Australian Peter Norman, of their plan. Norman borrowed an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge from a member of the American rowing team and suggested that Smith and Carlos share the single pair of black gloves Smith had brought with him, hence Smith’s right-handed salute and Carlos’s left.
The gesture made headlines around the world, bringing Smith and Carlos vilification – including death threats – back on home soil. None of the men ever ran at the Olympics again, but Norman’s Australian record time for the 200 m set that day still stands. After Norman’s death in 2006, Smith and Carlos both gave eulogies and were pallbearers at his funeral.
History, however, has judged them heroes for having sent a timely message to the world.
“We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country,” Tommie Smith said later. John Carlos reflected in 2012: “I had an obligation to step up. Morality was a far greater force than the rules and regulations.”