When he was growing up in Ethiopia, the only sport Robel Kiros Habte heard about was running. If you are from Ethiopia, your first choice of sport is running. Your second choice is running. It is also your third choice.
All of Ethiopia’s 45 Olympic medals have been won in athletics. All of them have been won by runners. All of them have been for distances of over 5000-metres. But Habte did not want to be a runner.
“I wanted to do something different for my country, that’s why I chose swimming,” he said in Rio this week where he represented his country. “Everybody, every day you wake up in Ethiopia, you run. Not swimming. But I didn’t want to run, I wanted to be a swimmer. It didn’t matter where I finished.”
It was a good thing it did not matter to Habte because the 24-year old student finished last in his 100m freestyle heat on his Olympic debut. He was 59th out of 59 athletes. “By the time the 24-year-old had emerged for air from his opening dive off the blocks in the 100 metres freestyle heats, he was already almost a body length behind and it did not get any better,” reported Reuters.
“The only one of the 59 entrants in the heats not to complete the distance in under a minute, Habte touched the wall with a time 17 seconds slower than Australian pacesetter Kyle Chalmers who clocked 47.90.”
By the time he had finished his three-man heat, the others, Thibaut Danho of the Ivory Coast and Johnny Perez Urena of the Dominican Republic, were waiting for him, having taken off their swimming caps and watched him swim in 12 seconds – half a lap – after they had finished. The crowd, though, cheered. The Olympics needs stories like these, tales of competitors who take part for the Olympian-ness of the Games. But it was not just his speed that caught the attention of the world, it was his body, a paunch that protruded over his swimsuit, an athlete several meals ahead and some training sessions behind. The world’s media have dubbed him “Robel the Whale”, a cruel, tabloid description, but he is rather portly, to say the least.
The official Rio website has him at 1.76m tall and 81kg. The other Ethiopian swimmer at the Games, the 20-year old Rahel Fseha Gebresilassie is set to take part in the 50m freestyle today.
Comparisons with Eric Moussambani, who was dubbed Eric the Eel, were immediate. The swimmer from Equatorial Guinea, who also took part in the 100m freestyle in Sydney in 2000. The story goes that Moussambani had only taken up swimming a few years before he became an Olympian.
“I started swimming when I left school. We didn’t have a swimming pool. We didn’t have anything, and I went to train at a private hotel pool that was about 13 metres long I think,” Moussambani told the Olympic website last year.
“I trained on my own and I had no swimming experience. The pool was only available from 5am to 6am and I was only able to train for three hours a week. I used to go swimming in rivers and the sea too, though. The fishermen would tell me how to use my legs and how to swim. There was nothing professional about it at all.”
Moussambani won his heat after the two others in the three-man heat, Karime Bare of Nigeria and Farkhod Oripov of Tajikistan, were disqualified for false starts. It took him one minute and 52 seconds to complete the 100 metres in a pool of which he said: “I was scared by the sight of the first pool I’d be racing in.”
He went out hard from the gun with the crowd at the Homebush aquatic centre roaring him on. He faded quite soon, and by the second lap it was torture, as his legs seized up and he struggled to finish. Before the race, a South African swimming coach had given him some advice, none of which he listened to as soon as he hit the water. He kept his head out of the water the entire 100m. He was flailing at one point.
“I swam the first 50m really well. I focused all my energy on telling myself to keep going and to make it to the end. I knew that the whole world was watching me: my family, my country, my mother, my sister and my friends. That’s why I was telling myself that I had to keep going, that I had to finish, even if I was alone in the pool.
"I wasn’t worried about the time. All I wanted to do was finish.”
When he did finish, the fans erupted. Moussambani became an overnight sensation.
He improved as a swimmer, setting a national record of 57 seconds, almost a minute faster than his Sydney race. Now he is Equatorial Guinea’s head swimming coach, a position he has held since 2012. He had hoped to bring a team to Rio, but none of his charges made the grade. Still, there is hope.
Because of Moussambani’s fame and work, there are now two 50m pools in his home country.
“I try to help young people who want to become good swimmers. I want to encourage them to swim and to take up sport.”