Olympic swimming is serious stuff now. You can tell because there are no more Eric The Eels floating in the pool, doing their personal tribute to the sinking of the Titanic.
Eric Moussambani, from Equatorial Guinea, became an international celebrity at the 2000 Sydney Olympics based solely on how poorly he mismanaged the freestyle. People loved his spirit; his ability to swim even worse than them. His fame shot to staggering heights.
Today – and this says plenty – Eric the Eel is his country’s national swim coach. He’s gone main stream, found his serious side, which is what swimming is all about at the Olympics.
Twelve years ago, athletes embraced the very sinkable Moussambani. Now they’d put him in a blender and mix him in with their protein drinks. There’s no room for fun in the pool. It’s all about going turbo, in the heats, in the semis, any time and every time.
Technology has produced swim suits that go fast; training regimes are designed to maximize every training session so that athletes can hit the water like speed boats. And it’s not just the Americans and Australians doing it; it’s virtually every country, which is why the Olympic swim meet is expected to celebrate more medalists from more countries than ever before.
It makes for great sport, but you kind of miss the odd guy who finds his way onto the pool deck and someone yells, “Get the lifeguards ready.”
There has been one such athlete like that in London, Hamadou Djibo Issaka, whose slow-boat-from-Niger rowing act has earned him the nickname the Sculling Sloth.
He struggled to finish his race. But if he keeps at it, he could be Niger’s national rowing coach in no time flat.