Moussambani arrived in Australia representing Equatorial Guinea in the men’s 100m freestyle swimming event with just £50 to his name.
Qualifying for the games via a wild-card scheme and even given the honour of carrying his nation’s flag during the opening ceremony, a rags-to-riches fairytale could well have been on the cards.
Problem was, Moussambani only taught himself to swim AFTER securing the wild-card berth, and had never even seen an Olympic-standard 50m pool before.
As the other two competitors in his heat – Niger’s Karim Bare and Tajikistan’s Farkhod Oripov – plunged into the water before the gun had even sounded, Moussambani took the opposite approach, glancing over at the starter as if for a less subtle cue to start swimming.
When he finally did get going, Eric — foregoing the more common skintight bodysuits in favour of a skimpy pair of blue trunks — was all alone, his heat-mates disqualified for the false starts, swimming twice the distance he had trained for.
That’s right: Moussambani was under the impression that his Olympic heat was for a 50m race, not the 100m he was now expected to swim.
With all eyes inside the Sydney International Aquatic Centre on the Guinean, the well-conditioned 22-year-old had a qualifying target of one minute, 10 seconds to reach.
But as Moussambani began to desperately struggle before he had approached the halfway turn in 45 of those 70 target seconds, laughter began to fill the venue as his lack of aptitude became apparent to a global audience.
As the final 30 metres approached, however, the good-natured audience’s amusement at the swimmer’s expense became light-hearted encouragement, and Moussambani was cheered onto a final time of 1:52.72 by the 17,000-strong crowd.
The surreal story turned the hapless Moussambani into an Olympic sensation as the ‘Eel’ nickname was born and a Speedo sponsorship followed.
In an interview, he admitted that the positive reaction of the crowd that fateful day in Australia helped him through the toughest minute of his life as he struggled to finish the full 100m:
“The first 50 metres were OK, but in the second 50 metres I got a bit worried and thought I wasn’t going to make it,” he admitted.
“Then something happened. I think it was all the people getting behind me. I was really, really proud.
“It’s still a great feeling for me and I loved when everyone applauded me at the end. I felt like I had won a medal or something.”
Moussambani bears the flag of his native Equatorial Guinea – but the tiny nation would ridicule ‘The Eel’ in the …
And where is he now?
Believe it or not, Eric will be present at London 2012 — as the Equatorial Guinea swimming coach.
‘The Eel’, now 34, will find time between his regular job in the oil industry to fulfil his coaching duties in London, though exactly how many swimmers the nation will send remains a mystery.
In the years since 2000, Moussambani had complained of being the subject of ridicule in his home nation, despite his cult status everywhere else.
Nonetheless, he continued to work on his technique and would eventually batter his personal best time down by almost a full minute to 55 seconds — 15 faster than what was required in 2000.
Unfortunately, a visa snafu denied Eric the opportunity of redemption at the 2004 Athens Games, and by the time the 2008 games in Beijing rolled around he was no longer competing.
The legacy of his Sydney performance lived on, however, with the run-up to both games in Greece and China featuring previews and reports galore from the media in search of that year’s “Eric The Eel”.
Ni-Vanuatu sprinter Elis Lapenmal and Palestinian swimmer Hamza Abdu as were depicted by news sources as “potential successors to Moussambani” prior to the 2008 Games, before Cook Islands swimmer Petero Okotai compared himself to Eric in an interview after recording a disappointing time in his event during the Olympics.