By IAN GARLAND
PUBLISHED: 12:50 EST, 29 July 2012 | UPDATED: 04:11 EST, 30 July 2012
- 35-year-old only took up rowing three months ago
- Sir Steve Redgrave criticises decision to give him wild card entry
He may not have won his race – nor even come close – but he certainly won the hearts of the crowd.
They roared Niger rower Hamadou Djibo Issaka across the finish line at Eton Dorney as he finished his heat in last place – 100 seconds behind the winner.
The valiant performance in the men’s single sculls repechage has seen him hailed as the ‘Eric the Eel’ of London 2012.
But there were some who failed to be moved by the efforts of the man who only took up the sport just three months ago.
Five-time Olympic rowing gold medalist Sir Steve Redgrave hit out at the decision by organisers to allow him to row.
Hamadou Djibo Issaka of Niger has become an early hero of the London 2012 Olympics – this Games’ answer to Eric the Eel
A giant screen tracked Issaka’s performance as he tried in vain to catch the other rowers
Champion: Redgrave with his collection of Olympic golds
He said: ‘There are better scullers from different countries who are not allowed to compete because of the different countries you’ve got.’
The 35-year-old’s performance has made him London Games’ answer to Eric the Eel, the swimmer from Equatorial Guinea who made headlines when he finished last in the 100 metres freestyle at the Sydney Games in 2000.
Issaka is at the Games courtesy of a wild card from the IOC Tripartite Commission, which allows each National Olympic Committee up to five athletes to participate at a summer games.
Previously a swimmer, he was handpicked by the Niger Swimming Federation, who sent him to Egypt to try rowing.
After finding his feet, he then went for more training at the International Rowing Development Centre in Tunisia for two months.
His achievements in the past 12 weeks have earned him the status of the landlocked Saharan nation‘s national rowing champion.
Slow start: Issaka can be seen struggling early on in the ehat as Lithuania’s Mindaugas Griskonis (in green) and Taiwan’s Wang Ming-Hui pull away
Issaka charges across the finish line at Eton Dorney, 100 seconds behind the heat winner – just three months after he took up rowing
MEET JENNET THE JELLYFISH
First there was Eric the eel — now meet Jennet the Jellyfish, competing in the same event as Britain’s Rebecca Adlington.
Jennet Saryyeva of Turkmenistan finished a minute and 18 seconds behind the rest of the competitors in her 400m freestyle heat.
Her time of 5min 40.29sec is two seconds outside her personal best. Eric ‘the eel’ Moussambani shot to fame at the 2000 Games in sydney when he swam the 100m freestyle in 1min 52.72sec — more than twice the time of the faster competitors and even outside the 200m world record.
It was, however, a new personal best and a national record for Equatorial Guinea.
His early success faded fast on Saturday as he was quickly outclassed by the other rowers in his heat.
But Issaka was thrilled with his performance.
Grinning ear-to-ear as he climbed out of his boat, he told reporters: ‘It went well. I passed the finish line, it was great.’
‘There were so many people encouraging me.’
‘I was happy to finish under their applause. Really, I’m happy for the whole country.’
And following Redgrave’s criticism Matt Smith,general secretary of world governing body FISA, insists he was added to the program and didn’t take the place of another rower.
And he’s proud of the way the crowd took to the underdog, adding: ‘We are so proud. It’s given us a new country, and a big boost. As far as rowing is concerned it’s fantastic. And we are really happy about the response from the spectators.’
Issaka, meanwhile has had the experience of a lifetime.
On Friday, instead of being tucked up in bed before his early-morning heat the next day, he was inside the Olympic Stadium attending the opening ceremony. He had been advised not to but he couldn’t resist.
‘It was magnificent,’ he said. ‘I had never seen fireworks before in my life!’
He certainly didn’t produce any fireworks in Sunday’s race. But it will probably go down as one of the moments of the London Games.
‘I’m preparing for the next competition,’ he said. ‘I’m happy with how things have gone.’
Torchbearer: Sir Steve passed on the Olympic flame to seven up-and-coming athletes at the Opening Ceremony
Making a splash: Eric ‘the Eel’ Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea finished his men’s 100m freestyle more than a minute slower than the world record at Sydney 2000