THE DAY THE EEL GAVE ME THE SLIP

17 December 2000

Eric Moussambani, whose battling display in Sydney’s Olympic pool earned worldwide fame, is more than a match for this correspondent

All right, all right, have your laugh. Yes, Eric The Eel did beat me, but that doesn’t make me “Brough The Bloater”. He’s probably improved since the Olympics. Besides my suit was too tight. Much too tight.

According to the blurb from Speedo, the “superstretch seaming” on my dynamic cut, anatomically-fitted “fast-skin” suit would enable me to “facilitate biomechanical functionality”. After five minutes of trying to zip up the front of the wretched thing last Monday, all sorts of personal “functionality” seemed about to cease permanently . “Oh no,” laughed Eric, “you are putting it on the wrong way round.”

He’s a nice chap, Eric, pleasant open face, small goatee beard, strong and sinewy physique. Having to play the fool but, one guesses, nobody’s fool at heart. When the man from Speedo rang up the day after his famous 1min 52sec near-drowning in the Sydney 100 metres, who was he to refuse his 15 minutes of fame? He may have had to pull on a shark outfit each time, but it’s taken him to Tokyo, Moscow, London and Cologne and may yet pay for his dream of a university education. Not bad for a sinking.

The world now knows how Eric Moussambani was asked last November if he would like to try for one of the wildcard Olympic places allocated to Equatorial Guinea. Not actually having anything resembling an Olympic arena, let alone a swimming team, the trial would be held in the pool of a local hotel. Having done some swimming when he hurt his foot playing basketball a couple of years earlier, Eric thought he should have a shot.

“There was three competitions,” says Eric with his trademark grace and good humour about what appears to have not been the most rigorous of pre-Olympic trials. “In the first I am number one. In the second I am number two. In the third I am number one again.” The first instinct is to jolly along with the joke of it all. No, he had never been out of his country, let alone flown, before Sydney. Yes, they did know more about sharks than sharkskin suits back home. No, he had never been bitten by a crocodile. Christmas time, here comes the clown. Let’s all sing along to party time.

But hang on a minute. This is a third language he is talking in. Through colonial history, the first and second tongues in Equatorial Guinea are Spanish and French. Eric’s father works as a lawyer in the Cameroon Embassy, his mother in a travel agency, his two younger sisters are at college in Spain. He may live in one of the smallest (500,000 citizens) and poorest countries in the world, but dodo he isn’t.

Nor was his Olympic experience without a sense of shame. “It was very bad,” he says. “I have never been in a 50-metre pool before and I go off very fast. The last metres [the now famous near-drowning sequence] were very terrible. My hand and legs hurt, I was very tired. Afterwards I go to the changing room and I am crying. It is only next morning that people in the village keep coming up to me and then the man from Speedo call and say I will be `Eric The Eel’.”

In the last month this persona has travelled a lot further than any eel ever swam. On Sunday he was at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards, on Tuesday he was at Germany’s equivalent in Cologne. He has been to Hungary to film one programme, to Japan to do another. As we talk a man from Fuji is lensing away. Heaven knows what they will make of Eric’s fishy friend in Tokyo. After Christmas he will do a two-week stint at one of Speedo’s warm-weather training camps in Australia or the United States. “I know I am not a good athlete,” he says modestly, “because I am not professional. But with the new suit on I did 1 min 45 sec [hardly Ian Thorpe standard] after the Olympics in Sydney. I want to do better than that.” After the training he will go back home but it sounds as if total dedication to sport is not his style.

“I am not a rich man. After swimming I want to work. I need qualifications. I want to study in computers or telecommunications.”

Is this freakshow tour an exploitation or a celebration of sport? Probably a bit of both, but waddling, shark-suited up to the super swanky, river view Holmes Place pool at Canary Wharf I did not feel in any position to pontificate. In pursuit of sporting amusement I have gone off the Cresta Run, crashed a bike racing against the world speedway champion and once, more heroically, got abused by the clowns in Bertram Mills Circus for not falling off `Micko, the Unrideable Mule’.

We were to go two lengths of the pool. It was 20 metres, half the size of Sydney, slightly bigger than Malabo. Disgracefully jumping the start I must have had a chance of at least honour in defeat. But I hadn’t realised how tight you need to tie racing goggles. As my supposedly dynamic racing dive hit the water, the goggles came down round my throat in strangulation. By the time I had cleared them, the Eel had overtaken. It is a matter of unhappy record that he continued to increase his advantage.

Easy to patronise, better to heed the words of the campaigning, if skew-haired Lord Longford in the Seventies. Asked by some persistently pompous inquisitor as to whether his well-intentioned but poorly-received prison visiting was in danger of making him ridiculous, the not so dotty peer sighed and said: “There are worse things in life than being a figure of fun.”

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