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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 May, 2003, 15:23 GMT 16:23 UK
What are the Olympic ideals?
By Tom Fordyce

Eric Moussambani
Eric the Eel ploughs up the pool in Sydney

The end may be in sight for that quintessential Olympic tradition - the hapless competitors who are so gob-smackingly awful that they become heroes to millions around the world.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) boss Jacques Rogge told Olympic Review Magazine he wants to abolish the wild card system, which allows smaller, unsuccessful countries to send athletes to compete even if they are well below the standard required to qualify.

Without the wild card system there would have been no Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards - the British ski-jumper who finished 56th out of 57 on the 70m hill at the 1988 Olympics (the 57th-placed man was disqualified).

There would also have been no Eric "The Eel" Moussambani, the swimmer from Equatorial Guinea who took 1 minute 52.7 seconds to do the 100 metres freestyle at the Sydney Games, and almost drowned in the effort.

One can understand Rogge's thinking. The Olympic motto is, "Citius, altius, fortius" - meaning "swifter, higher, stronger".


It is a not a phrase which could be used to describe Moussambani, a man so slow that he finished a full minute outside the world record, so inept that he would have failed to qualify for the next round of the 200m, let alone the 100m.

Then again, the man who coined that motto, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, also came out with the following famous line: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well."

On that basis both Eric and Eddie deserved their places at the Games. One could not fault either man's effort, even if neither got close to conquering.

From the spectators' point of view, it is worth asking whether any of us would remember the ski-jumping in 1988 or the first round of the freestyle in 2000 had it not been for those two.

Eddie Edwards gives the thumbs-up
Eddie the Eagle: Hero to millions

De Coubertin - a man much given to quotable comment - also proclaimed, "The Olympic Games are for the world, and all nations must be admitted to them."

The British Olympic Association has already amended its rules so that any member of the British team must be capable of finishing in the top half of their event.

Other, less successful, countries are happy just to be represented - and it is here that the wild card system helps them fulfil De Coubertin's ideals.

Matthew Pinsent, winner of three Olympic golds and now a member of the IOC Committee, has mixed views.

"Eric the Eel was an amazing story for Equatorial Guinea - he was one of very few athletes they sent to the Olympic Games," Pinsent told BBC Radio Five Live.

"The Olympics is about participation and universality, about trying to include as many countries as possible, and if Eric the Eel is the only person flying the flag for Equatorial Guinea, then maybe he should come.

"Then again, I know lots of people personally who have put aside years of their lives to try to get to the Olympic Games, but didn't reach the required standard.

"They could look at Eric the Eel and ask why he gets to go and flop up and down the pool when they don't.

"Look at the facts. He swam 1:51 for the 100m freestyle, which by any standards isn't particularly special. You could go to a school sports day and see people doing that.

"The Olympics is under enormous pressure with numbers, it's getting bigger all the time. In every sport in Athens there will be a quota for each sport.

"Rowing will be allowed so many hundreds, athletics the same. By necessity you have to put a qualifying standard in place - and that means the days of Eric the Eel and his like are numbered."

IOC to ban no-hopers
27 May 03  |  Other Sport

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