The eccentric games: Or why you can always rely on the Olympics to throw up an odd character or two…



22:04 GMT, 27 July 2012

There’s not much chance the TV cameras will linger on the Olympic swimming team from Equatorial Guinea this week, but if they do, see if you can pick out the face of their coach. Does Eric Moussambani look familiar More pertinently, does he look petrified

This is not Moussambani’s first Olympics. Twelve years ago he competed in the 100m freestyle swimming in Sydney, but within seconds of jumping into the pool he was struggling to keep his head above water.

His performance was so amateurish the BBC commentator observed, ‘This guy doesn’t look like he’s going to make it.’

Eric the eel in Sydney in 2000

Eric the eel in Sydney in 2000

When Moussambani finally climbed out of the water one minute and 52 seconds later, he’d achieved an Olympic record – the slowest time ever recorded in the event. He also picked up worldwide fame and an ironic nickname: ‘Eric The Eel’.

The surprise is not that he performed so badly, but that he was selected at all. Until that day in 2000, Eric had never seen an Olympic-sized pool, he’d only taken up swimming eight months earlier and had trained in a crocodile-infested river.

Ten metres from the end of his heat, he was struggling so badly it looked like he’d need to be rescued. But the crowd, enthralled by this bizarre Olympian, helped urge him through and he emerged a hero.

George Eyser won six medals in one day; he did all this with a wooden leg

George Eyser won six medals in one day; he did all this with a wooden leg

Eric’s presence at London 2012 is evidence that the Olympics is about much more than a coming together of the world’s sporting elite. It’s also about the glorious eccentrics, the athletes who come with unusual lives and odd backgrounds.

Take gymnast George Eyser, star performer at the 1904 Olympics in St Louis, Missouri. Eyser won six medals in one day – including Golds on the parallel bars, vault and the rather quaint-sounding ‘rope climbing’ event. And he did all this with a wooden leg.

Another unlikely victor in those games came in the Marathon. Fred Lorz burst through the tape after three hours and 13 minutes, before admitting that nine miles in he’d hopped into a car which had whizzed him through 11 miles of the course. He was instantly disqualified.

Sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate between cheating, joking – and, well, something else. Stella Walsh, a Polish-American runner, had won Gold in the 100m sprint in the 1932 Olympics and Silver in 1936. She might have faded into obscurity had she not been innocently caught up in a robbery while out shopping in 1980, aged 69.

She was killed by a stray bullet, and during the post-mortem it emerged that this ‘female’ competitor had male genitalia. The tabloid headlines that followed were inevitable if not respectful: ‘Stella the fella’.

Sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate between cheating, joking – and, well, something else

And then there was Boris Onischenko, a colonel in the KGB and a Russian pentathlete at the 1976 Montreal Games, who seized upon the fact that in the fencing, scoring was counted automatically – an electronic scoreboard was programmed to detect when one player achieved a hit on the other. Onischenko wired up his pe with a button buried deep in the handle.

One quick press and the scoreboard registered a point for the Russian without him even making contact – much to the bemusement of his opponents, who complained to officials. They confiscated the weapon, found the button, and Onischenko was disqualified for ‘a flagrant, deliberate manipulation of the weapon’.

Yet, for some, chivalry is the order of the day: in 1928 in Amsterdam, Australian rower Bobby Pearce noticed a family of ducks swimming across the course, so stopped and let them pass, allowing his rival, Frenchman Victor Saurin, to take the lead. Justice prevailed, however: Pearce went on to win by 20 lengths.

And the ducks They lived to see another day, a feat they managed even without the coaching Eric The Eel Moussambani.