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Struggling to keep himself afloat
Sydney Morning Herald (NSW Metropolitan, 6 August 2004)

In the swim: Eric Moussambani struggles during the 100 metres freestyle heats at the Sydney Olympics. Photo: Vince Caligiuri

Eric the Eel has broken one minute for the 100-metres freestyle. Now to see if he can break the red tape and get to Athens. Alex Brown reports.

For the past month, Eric "the Eel" Moussambani has sat idle in his hometown of Malabo, waiting for a phone call that has yet to come.

Summoned back to Equatorial Guinea from his Spanish training base, supposedly to collect his Athens accreditation, the iconic African swimmer has recently learned that an application glitch may derail his dream of competing in Greece.

And eight days from the opening ceremony, Moussambani has all but given up hope. According to the 26-year-old, widely regarded as one of the faces of the Sydney games, the Equatorial Guinea Olympic Committee had yet to submit his accreditation for Athens, apparently because officials were unable to locate his passport photo.

To most, such a scenario would seem absurd. But Moussambani has learned to accept these kind of governmental explanations - the kind that have, thus far, stopped him from accepting a university scholarship in Wisconsin and forced him to Valencia, Spain, in order to continue training.

"They tell me if I want to go to the Olympics, I have to come back to my country with all the athletes for Athens," Moussambani told the Herald last night from Malabo. "But since I come back, they are telling me they could not find my passport picture and my accreditation is not there. So I wait and wait.

"I have been training very hard for three years . . . and my goal was wanting to go to Athens and to show the people I can do better and I can do something. I will know this time tomorrow. Our team leaves the next day. But I am almost gone, I think."

Though Moussambani's memories of Sydney remain vivid - from his all-flailing, all-gasping 100-metre swim to the international notoriety that followed - his career appears to be fading.

Gone are the sponsorship deals, the autograph-signing tours of Europe and the worldwide media attention. Despite cutting his personal best for the 100m from 1 minute 52.72 seconds in Sydney to under 57s today, a sponsorless, near-broke Moussambani fears that failure to compete in Athens will force him into retirement.

"One year after [the Sydney Olympics] everything went very quiet for me," he said. "I spent one year travelling everywhere doing interviews with Speedo. After that I can't travel anymore [because] I have to swim and I have to prepare for Athens.

"The [Speedo] contract is finished now. I don't have any more sponsors. I have been training very hard but nobody has been helping me [financially]. I have a plan to go to Athens but if I can't go, there is not enough money [to continue]. Maybe if I go to the USA, I can still train very hard and improve my swimming."

Training has been difficult for Moussambani since moving back to Equatorial Guinea, given the entire nation houses just two pools. Neither has water.

So while awaiting word on his Olympic fate, "the Eel" has been considering his future, hopeful his Cameroon-based manager can secure him a paid place in a Florida university to study for a computer-engineering degree.

But, again, Moussambani is bracing for the worst. Having been offered a scholarship to attend university in Wisconsin shortly after the Sydney Olympics, he was informed another governmental error had rendered the offer void.

"I couldn't get everything here done in my country - they had to sign some papers and they couldn't do it or didn't want to do it for me to go to Wisconsin," he said. "I don't know what their reason was. I have been studying computer engineering in Valencia and now I am trying to go to USA again. I don't have a scholarship offer now, so in Florida I will have to pay."

For now, though, Moussambani waits. Waits for Olympic officials to find his passport photo. Waits to join Equatorial Guinea's two other Olympics-bound athletes - apparently part of a 10-member delegation the African nation will send to Athens.

According to FINA officials contacted by the Herald last night, Moussambani has a small, ever-diminishing chance of having his Athens accreditation accepted, but only if his national Olympic committee takes up his cause.

In 2000, Moussambani was invited to compete in Sydney through a Juan Antonio Samaranch-inspired "wildcard" program under which a handful of athletes can take part in the Olympics even if they don't meet qualifying standards.

"In Australia, I enjoy it there very much," he said. "I had a very good time in Bondi Beach. Tell the Australian people that I love them and they still have a place in my heart. They made me a famous person and gave me the courage to swim the 100 metres. I love them. I hope I can swim for them again."

All will be revealed today, somewhere in a Malabo governmental office. | End

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