Olympic Anti-heroes [Edit]

While most athletes remembered for their Olympic exploits are winners, or at least contenders, sometimes the anti-heroes become more famous than the medallists. An early example of this might be Dorando Pietri, who was disqualified after winning the 1908 Olympic marathon for being aided by officials after he collapsed in the final lap of the track. More recent, and better known, is Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards, a British ski jumper, competing in the 1988 Winter Games. With thick glasses, a non-athletic posture and just two years of experience, Edwards attracted more media attention than winner Matti Nykänen. He finished dead last in both his events, and by a wide margin.

However, not everybody was happy with competitors like Edwards: some officials felt it distracted from the top competitors, while some athletes who had failed to qualify for their Olympic team found Edwards’ presence offensive. During the 1990s, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Federations gradually adopted stricter qualification criteria for the Olympics, decreasing the chance of another Edwards. But as the Olympic ideals desire all countries to take part in the Games, in some sports, athletes may compete that have not met qualification criteria.

One such athlete was Eric “The Eel” Moussambani, of Equatorial Guinea. At the Sydney Olympics, he made newsreels all over the world by his performance in the swimming pool. With both opponents in his 100 freestyle heat disqualified after a false start, Moussambani was the sole swimmer in his race. Having only a few months of swimming experience in a small hotel pool, Moussambani splashed home in 1:52.72, 50 seconds slower than the next-to-last competitor, and slower than the world record in the 200 m freestyle. Yet, the Australian crowds loudly cheered him on.

Not all Olympic anti-heroes place last. A famous example is the Jamaican bobsled team that competed in the 1988 Olympics. Their team was initially widely ridiculed, coming from a nation without any history in winter sports. But the team achieved a credible 30th place in the two-man event (with 41 entries), and in the 1994 event reached a 14th place in the four-man competition. Their extraordinary story was made into a successful comedy movie by Disney, titled Cool Runnings.

In 1998, a similar situation occurred when Kenyan Philip Boit became the first black African cross-country skier to compete in the Olympics. When he finished the 10 km events, in 92nd and last place, he was greeted at the line by the winner, Bjørn Dæhlie. But critics noted that Boit had been heavily sponsored by sporting goods company Nike, accusing the company of deliberately creating an anti-hero for publicity reasons.