The Olympic Motto: “Citius, Altius, Fortius.” It means Fastest, Highest, Strongest.
Now add Lamius. The Lamest.
Last week, two swimmers from Equatorial Guinea were allowed to participate in two events in the Olympic pool in Sydney, even though they didn’t come close to meeting the qualifying standards. The group that governs swimming worldwide claims that it is “part of an effort to popularize swimming in non-traditional nations.”
Is swimming unpopular in Equatorial Guinea? No, but on the west coast of Africa, most of the swimming is done in the ocean. Pools are almost non-existent. There are only two, in hotels, and neither is longer than 20 meters.
So, when Eric Moussambani and Paula Barila took part in the heats for the 50 meter freestyle events, they nearly drowned. They finished about as far behind the next-slowest competitors as your average public access cable show does in the ratings behind “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” For this, they received standing ovations from the crowd, and became instant celebrities.
Here’s the problem. The Olympics are supposed to be about competition between the world’s best athletes. You have to qualify, you have to meet certain standards, you have to be able to dive off the starting block without doing a belly flop. This isn’t Spring Break, where anyone can get into the pool and impress the crowd with a Giant Cannonball.
The four competitive swimming strokes are freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly – there’s no Olympic event called The 50 Meter Dog Paddle.
Don’t confuse this with that famous footage of the last guy into the stadium after an Olympic marathon several years ago. He straggled in, weary and bloody, long after the others had completed the race, and the crowd rose to its feet as he rounded the track towards the finish line. That was about bravery, about a man who had worked to become one of the top twenty or so distance runners in the world, who had simply been overcome by the event and the circumstances. He deserved every bit of admiration from the crowd, which realized the enormity of the effort they were watching.
Eric The Eel and Paula The Porpoise, as they’ve been dubbed by the media which started the clock on their fifteen minutes of fame this week, are not athletes. They are seemingly nice people who were plucked out of obscurity to represent their country at The Olympics. You can’t blame them. Compared to your average day in Equatorial Guinea, I’m sure a trip to Sydney and a moment on the world stage was beyond their wildest dreams.
But there are a lot of people who dream of getting to The Olympics. What about all those true athletes who sacrificed for their whole lives, working and struggling and spending hundreds of hours practicing in the water, hoping to some day be good enough to go for the gold? What do you say to them? That they may have been close to meeting the qualifying standards, but because they are from a “traditional” swimming nation, they’re out of luck, while these rookies – Paula has only been swimming for two months! – get a free pass?
I’m sure the NHL would like to expand its fan base to Saudi Arabia, but you won’t see the Blues pulling their goalie, Roman Turec, and replacing him with Sheik Abdul Mohammed. The Cardinals won’t be pinch-hitting for Jim Edmonds with Alexei Barshovsky of Minsk, just so Major League Baseball can pump up interest in their game in Russia.
One of the members of the group that came up with this brilliant deal was quoted last week as saying “It epitomized the feeling of the Olympics. They’re trying to do their best.” But The Olympics are not just about people trying their best. It’s supposed to be about those who are the best. If you want to have a contest between people who just learned how to swim, do it at a picnic, along with the sack race and the water balloon catch.
The powers-that-be in the swimming world should be called for a false start here. They jumped out of the blocks way too early. To increase interest among the people of Equatorial Guinea, they should have started at the beginning. First, get a full-length pool somewhere in the country. Second, send over some coaches who can teach their swimmers the basics of, oh, say, treading water. Third, invite some of their swimmers to observe, rather than take part in, the Olympics. Then, if there’s genuine desire, they can go back home and begin training in the hopes that they’d be good enough to qualify for the 2004 Olympics.
In the meantime, Olympic swimming events shouldn’t have a lifeguard who has to remind the competitors not to hang on the ropes.
Now, Eric and Paula, please get out of the pool. It’s time for Adult Swim.