After a while, I longed for a buddy to freeload with. That's when I saw Eric Moussambani, the athlete from Equatorial Guinea who swam in the first heat of the 100-m freestyle. After the other competitors were disqualified for jumping at the "on your mark" part, Moussambani had to swim alone. Moussambani had never even come close to swimming two pool lengths before. Halfway through the race, he started flailing and seemed in danger of drowning. But he prevailed, clocking in at 1:52.72. That's 1:04.08 longer than it took gold-medal winner Pieter van den Hoogenband and 50.27 longer than Moussambani's closest competitor, the 70th-place swimmer from Bahrain. It turns out that before he arrived in Sydney, Moussambani didn't know how to swim.
Because Sydney, as part of the bid that brought the Olympics to the most ridiculously located country in the world, promised to fly any athlete to the Games, Moussambani was able to get free airfare, housing at the Olympic Village and food at the cafeteria. This guy was my idol.
Better yet, Moussambani was being feted as a hero. The Sydney Morning Herald wrote that he exhibited the true Olympic spirit, not once using the phrase "ballsy hucksterism." The "Today" show did an interview; the Olympic Committee took him to lunch and put him on a postcard; Speedo bought him a uniform. The way I saw it, Moussambani was more than a hero; he was a name I could put on my expense account. So last Friday I offered to take him to 41, one of the most expensive restaurants in Sydney. He accepted, then called later to say he could come only if I took all three of his fellow Equatorial Guinean athletes. And their coaches. This guy was good.
Despite the language barrier, we all enjoyed the five-course meal, and it turns out we have much in common. Sure, Moussambani has never read TIME, and I have no idea where his country is, but we both know how to work it. He and his fellow swimmer Paula Barila Bolopa, who swam the 50-m in 1:03.97, doubling the second worst time, had received money to be interviewed by Australian papers. And Moussambani had already turned down an ad campaign. "Speedo offered to sponsor me, but I didn't like the contract," he said, eating baked Alaska as the waitress came over with a stack of menus to be signed. "Michael Johnson was here two days ago, and we didn't ask for his autograph," she said. After signing, the team stopped for some photo ops with diners, then headed back to the Olympic Village. Moussambani promised to call me next year, when he hopes to be invited to a swim meet in Washington. We both better enjoy it while it lasts. After that, I figure, Moussambani can write self-obsessed columns while I competitively doggy-paddle.