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September 22, 2000
Guinea glories in defeat againJulian Linden
Paula Barila Bolopa completed a unique double for Equatorial Guinea's swim team when she matched her now famous team mate Eric "the Eel" Moussambani by swimming the slowest Olympic race in history.
While Moussambani is revelling in his new-found celebrity status after taking almost two minutes to swim a heat of the men's 100 metres freestyle, Bolopa showed the world her team mate is not the only one capable of moving through the water like the Titanic.
Competing in the women's 50 metres freestyle sprint, the 20-year-old received a roar as loud as anything Ian Thorpe or Pieter van den Hoogenband got when she reached the end of her heat in an agonisingly slow one minute 03.97 seconds -- almost 40 seconds slower than the fastest qualifier, Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands.
"It's the first time I've swum 50 metres...it was further than I thought," she said. "I was very tired."
Like Moussambani, who has been inundated with calls from media and sponsors since bursting into the limelight with his glorious failure three days ago, Bolopa only started training in January and had never swum in a 50-metre pool before.
She had never seen starting blocks before she arrived in Sydney and despite a fear of heights, she showed a clean pair of heels when the starter's gun went off. Her reaction time of 0.73 seconds was identical to de Bruijn's and faster than Americans Dara Torres and Amy Van Dyken.
But any hopes that Bolopa was about to herald the start of a glorious era in Olympic swimming for the tiny central African nation were quickly dashed as she belly-flopped into the pool and sank like a stone.
"It was a long way down to the water, she wasn't used to that," team's manager Enrique Roca Nguba explained. "But she's practising."
Just before the call went out for the lifeguards to jump in and save her, Bolopa resurfaced and set off on the lap of a lifetime. Sticking close to the ropes in case she didn't make it, she kept her head above the water the entire time, kicking her legs like a breaststroker as she dog-paddled her way down the golden pond that has produced 12 world records in five days.
Moe Thu Aung of Malaysia won the heat in 22.80 seconds. She turned around to check her time to discover that Bolopa had still not made it halfway down the pool so she joined in cheering with the 17,000 crowd in which probably every person there could have beaten her.
Bolopa and Moussambani have become two of the stars of the Sydney Olympics much like Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards became a hero at the 1988 Calgary Olympics for his pathetic attempts at ski-jumping.
Both have been given new swim suits, goggles and caps and have been signed up sponsors wanting to cash in on their 15 minutes of fame. They have been besieged by media and autograph hunters wherever they go.
The pair was allowed to compete at the Games as part of a plan by the sport's world governing body FINA to promote swimming in countries not already involved in the sport. The Equatorial Guinea Swimming Federation was formed just six months ago but so far has only attracted seven members.
"Actually I play football and then I heard about swimming," Bolopa said when asked to explain her meteoric rise. "They had a competition so I went in it and I qualified for the Olympics."
There are only two pools in the country and the longest is just 20 metres long but they rarely train in it because of all the tourists so head to the rivers instead.
And like the Eel, Bolopa is planning to train hard for the 2004 Athens Olympics. "It's never too late," she said.
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