The World’s Slowest Swimmer: Paternalism in the Olympics

The Olympic wild card policy is an excellent example of a good intention with unintended consequences. RTE News defines the wild card system this way: “The wild card is allocated to ensure all 204 National Olympic Committees can take part if no athletes have qualified.” It is intended to open opportunities for developing nations to participate in Olympic events, garnering attention and publicity that often attracts investment, according to a recent article from The Sunday Guardian.

Eric Moussambani, or “Eric the Eel,” won a wild card for Equatorial Guinea in swimming. Eric arrived at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, eight months after learning to swim and training in a 20 meter hotel pool. He won his first heat because both of his competitors were disqualified due to false starts. His qualifying time of 1:52.72 doubled the times of his fastest competitors.

In a video of the race titled, “The World’s Slowest Swimmer!!!” one hears the announcers and 17,000 spectators cheering him on. Eric even thanks the audience later, saying their noisy support kept him going. To some, it sounded more like mockery and masked laughter. The announcers cheered him on with a patronizing enthusiasm. Eric reached a personal best and set a new record for the 100m in Equatorial Guinea, but on the global Olympic stage, his accomplishments were reduced to farce and cheap entertainment.

Eric’s legacy is carried on by “Paula the Crawler,” Stany “The Snail” Kempompo Ngangola, and Hamadou Djibo Issaka. Paula, also from Equatorial Guinea, joined Eric in setting records for slowest swim times at the Sydney Olympics. Stany Kempompo Ngangola from the Democratic Republic of Congo had a wild card for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and finished last to 97 swimmers. Most recently, Hamadou Djibo Issaka of Niger rowed a few days ago in London. After only 3 months of training, he crossed the finish line with the slowest time at an Olympics, a full minute longer than the world record. Each of these athletes was cheered on by a roaring crowd.

Is this the cheering on of the underdog or belittlement with a condescending sympathy clap? Maybe it’s a bit of both. Regardless, it strips the athletes of their dignity. In reality, their anti-records are not indicative of their natural strength or ability; rather they reflect a lack of resources.

In the Atlantic, Derek Thompson highlights specific sports where success may be more rooted in external factors than inherent ability, and notes, “Income and democratic institutions appear to dependably produce superior athletes in Olympic competition.” One of these factors is infrastructure. Wealthier countries have more established infrastructure and can afford the expensive “facilities required to produce the world’s greatest athletes in dozens of sports every four years.”

The wild card need not be eliminated. The legacy of the wild card has been a godsend for many Olympic athletes. But particularly when it is used as a means to include developing nations in new sports, it creates a paternalistic and pitying atmosphere. Instead of operating out of paternalism, let’s partner with these countries and create resources to build the facilities needed to train well and compete well in the Olympics. This will maintain the dignity of athletes who are brimming with talent, strength, and passion, and who simply need an opportunity to compete at the same level.

Jul 312012
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