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It's taking part that counts: Olympic spills
Adam Gibson
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Image: Getty
Eric Moussambani


The ultimate measure of success at the Olympic Games is to win a medal — preferably gold, but silver and bronze aren't half bad either. But sometimes athletes are remembered for reasons other than their sporting prowess, when a lack of talent, an untimely injury, or a tactical error can become the reason for which they are famed.

For these unlucky few, their less than grandiose exploits live on in our collective memory just as significantly as the world record breakers and the multi gold-medal winners and without them, the Olympics would be a much less human experience.

Eric "The Eel" Moussambani (Equatorial Guinea)

The gold standard of such must be swimmer Eric "The Eel" Moussambani. The Equatorial Guinean's story has gone down in Games folklore not because he was such a fast swimmer, but precisely the opposite – because he was so slow. Given a wildcard entry to the Sydney 2000 Games as part of a scheme to allow athletes from developing countries to compete at the Games, Eric had never seen an Olympic pool prior to the event.

When placed in a 100m freestyle heat with two other such athletes – both of whom promptly false started and were disqualified – what followed was a "race" that has outlived its novelty value to become a symbol of perseverance. Recording a decidedly un-Olympic time of 1:52.72 seconds, the huge Sydney crowd willed the ironically named "Eel" to the finish line. But finish he did, and he became a legend in the process.

Derek Redmond (Britain)

Britain Derek Redmond is another whose persistence created a legend at the Olympics. Although a gold medallist in the 400m at the Commonwealth Games and the World Championships, it was the 400m semi-final at the 1992 Barcelona Games for which he will be forever remembered.

Well-positioned as he approached the final 250m of the race, the injury-prone Redmond's hamstring snapped like an elastic band and he fell to the ground. Distraught and pain-stricken, Redmond got to his feet and hobbled onward, only to be joined by his father who had leapt from the crowd and evaded security guards to be at his son’s aid. Determined to finish, and with his father supporting him, Redmond made it to the line, his name being etched there and then into the book of great Olympic moments.

Kerri Strug (USA)

American gymnast Kerri Strug's story is another that involved pushing through the pain barrier – but this time for a more successful outcome. At the 1996 Atlanta Games, the US women's gymnastics team was locked in fierce competition with the might of the Eastern European gymnastics powerhouses. When it came to the final of the women's team event, the hometown crowd were desperate for victory.

Competing in the vault discipline, Strug badly damaged her ankle in a preliminary jump. Although she could barely walk, her presence was required in the next round to ensure the Russian team was kept at bay. Needing to land her jump and with her ankle heavily strapped, Strug scored a 9.712, thus ensuring the US the gold medal. Strug was taken to hospital soon after, where she was found to have a severe ankle sprain and tendon damage. She may have won gold, but it's for beating the pain that she is best remembered.

Elis Lapenmal (Vanuatu)

The Pacific nation of Vanuatu is best known for its beautiful islands, beaches and tourist resorts – it certainly isn't recognised for its Olympic sprinters. But that’s where 100m runner Elis Lapenmal, another athlete to benefit from a wildcard entry into the 2008 Beijing Games, came from. With a personal best of 13:10 seconds, Elis was clearly outclassed in the women's 100m, yet it was with valiant effort that she came last in the first heat of the event. Her Olympics were over in the 13:31 seconds it took her to complete the race – but at least she was there.

Shane Kelly (Australia)

At the 1996 Atlanta Games, Australian cyclist Shane Kelly was certainly present. A star performer and favourite for the gold in the individual 1000m time trial event, Kelly was regarded as a near certainty for victory. But in an event where milliseconds count, when Kelly's foot slipped from the pedal at the very start, his winning chance was gone. Despite knowing he'd blown the gold, he finished the 1000m with grace, signalling to the crowd with a rueful grimace at what might have been.

Frankie Fredericks (Namibia)

Also wondering what might have been would be Namibian runner Frankie Fredericks. From a small country that had never previously won an Olympic medal, he took silver in the 100m race and also in the 200m at the Barcelona Games. Gold eluded him by milliseconds in both events, so it was with avid determination that he went to Atlanta in 1996, intent on capturing first place. Alas, it was not to be, but the hopeful and philosophical Fredericks performed well taking silver again … and again in both events.

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