DORNEY, England (Reuters) - Niger’s Hamadou Djibo Issaka, a rower of just three months, was given a rapturous reception normally reserved for gold medalists after struggling to the finish line in the men’s single sculls on Sunday.
Drawing comparisons to swimmer Eric “the eel” Moussambani who crawled to fame at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Djibo Issaka eventually crossed the line a full minute and 39 seconds after Lithuanian winner Mindaugas Griskonis. His time was 8 minutes 39.66 seconds.
“You can do it,” yelled the announcer at the course on Dorney Lake to the west of London as Djibo Issaka approached the finish while the crowd of 20,000 in the grandstands stood, waved flags and roared him on.
The 35-year-old from landlocked Niger in West Africa had received a wild card to the Olympics, allocated to ensure all 204 National Olympic Committees can take part even if no athletes have qualified. Niger has sent six athletes to London.
On Saturday he came last in his heat with a time of 8:25:56 - more than a minute slower than the penultimate sculler from El Salvador - but rowing gives everyone a second chance to progress, or repechage, and he returned on Sunday but added 14 second to his time.
Grimacing with pain, Djibo Issaka summoned one final push before slumping over his oars and gasping for breath.
“I have only been rowing for three months,” Djibo Issaka, wearing green, white and orange lycra, told reporters at the venue which is set in a 450-acre parkland built by Eton College, one of Britain’s most famous schools which has educated a string of British prime ministers.
He said he started out as a swimmer but switched to rowing this year and spent two weeks training in Egypt, two months in Tunisia, as his coach is Tunisian, and a week in Belgium.
Djibo Issaka was confident that his performance at London could mark the start of a new era for rowing in Niger.
“There are many people who want to start rowing because I have come to the Olympic Games,” he said. “We will start when I get back. We just have to wait for the boats to arrive.”
Djibo Issaka was being compared to one of the Olympics’ most famous underdogs, swimmer Eric “the eel” Moussambani from Equatorial Guinea, who became a world sensation at Sydney.
Having trained for only eight months in a 20 meter-hotel pool, Moussambani swam his heat on his own after the other two competitors were disqualified for false starts and he flagged near the end, appearing to almost sink near the finish.
Roared on by the 17,000-strong crowd, his time of 1:52.72, was the slowest seen at an Olympics and more than a minute behind the world record but he received a standing ovation and instant fame.
Another underdog, ski jumper Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards, soared to fame at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games when the near-sighted British plasterer with thick glasses flung himself off the ski jump with arms flailing.
Edwards finished last but won the hearts and imagination of the sporting world for his spirit and determination.
His performance also caught the attention of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which later tightened qualification standards ruling out the chance of ever seeing the likes of an Eddie on an Olympic ski jumping hill ever again.
Martin Polley, senior lecturer in sport at Southampton University, said it was unique to find such underdogs competing among the world’s athletic elite.
“Other world tournaments have stricter qualification criteria but the Olympics is about encouraging all countries to have a go and to take part,” Polley told Reuters.
Not everyone agrees. Britain’s five-times Olympic gold medalist Steve Redgrave has repeatedly spoken out against the approach by rowing’s governing body to use the Games to try and encourage new countries to take up the sport.
He told Reuters in the past that the sight of a rower being “hammered” by over a minute was not a very practical way to encourage participation.
Additional reporting by Kate Holton, editing by Justin Palmer