With punishing training routines, allegations of doping, and a worldwide fascination with pushing human capability to its limits in the Olympic Games (“Faster, higher, stronger” is, after all, their motto), it is nice to be reminded that at heart the games are a celebration of our common humanity and indomitable spirit. This was displayed in spades this week by Niger’s Hamadou Djibo Issaka, whose abominable performance in a series of sculling events included a finish in single sculls repechage that was a minute and forty seconds behind the winner. (The race takes about seven minutes). But perhaps Issaka can be excused, for his arrival in London marked the first time he had seen a regulation sculling boat. In fact, the 35-year-old father of two and former competitive swimmer took up the sport only eight months ago, learning to row on a wooden fishing boat in his home town of Niamey before entering training programs in Egypt and Tunisia. Issaka joins a small and exclusive club of utter Olympic failures that for some reason seem to warm the heart. This long line of Quixotic competitors has as its spiritual founder ski-jumper Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, a British national and former downhiller who was working in a Finnish mental hospital when he received the news he had qualified for the 1988 games. In 2001 Trevor Misipeka joined the endearment club, when due to clerical errors, the 290 pound Samoan shot-putter was forced to run the 100-meter dash at the World Athletics Championships.
Perhaps the most famous Olympic embarrassment cum triumph of recent memory is that of Eric “the Eel” Moussambani, who at the 2000 Sydney games set a world record for the slowest 100-meter freestyle at one minute and 52.72 seconds—more than a minute behind the gold medal time in that race and slower even than the medalists in the men’s 200-meter race! Much like Issaka, the Eel had taken up swimming only three months before the Olympics, practicing without a trainer in a 20-meter long pool in Malambo (of the Olympic-sized pool, which he saw for the first time when he arrived in Sydney, Moussambani says “I was terrified. I did not imagine it could be so big”), and qualifying for the games as part of an Olympic Committee program to encourage athletes from poorer countries to participate. The celebrity won by athletes like these has generated controversy within the global athletic community, with many pointing out that much more qualified athletes lose a spot in the games to these relative newcomers. On the other hand, it is in some measure refreshing to see an athlete whose performance is all spirit and no technique—a reminder that among those muscles which raise us to ever greater heights is the human heart.