Niger rower's painfully slow finish draws questions about his Olympic merit

LONDON – Rower Hamadou Djibo Issaka brought back memories of infamous swimmer Eric "The Eel" Moussambani with an embarrassingly slow performance in the men's single sculls on Day 1 of the Olympics.

The 35-year-old from the African nation of Niger was given one of the wildcards awarded to some of the Games' less successful countries, but British Olympic rowing legend Sir Steven Redgrave insisted Djibo Issaka should not have been allowed into the competition at the expense of better athletes. Djibo Issaka finished last in his five-man heat, more than 1,000 feet (304.8 meters) behind his nearest competitor.

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Gold-medal favorite Mahe Drysdale of New Zealand came in first with a solid qualifying time of 6:49.69 in Heat 4, ahead of Beijing gold medalist Olaf Tufte of Norway. The single sculls, held at Eton Dorney to the north of London, is staged over 2,000 meters.

Fourth place went to Roberto Lopez of El Salvador in 7:23.75. Djibo Issaka was even out of touch with Lopez, eventually crawling home in 8:25.56, the only athlete in any of the heats to go over 7:30. The crowd cheered Djibo Issaka enthusiastically as he crossed the finish line, but Redgrave, who was the last man to carry the Olympic torch on Friday before it was handed to seven young athletes, was not so impressed.

"You've got to be encouraging more countries to get involved," Redgrave said. "But there are better scullers from different countries who are not allowed to compete because of the different countries you've got."

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Rowing is far from being an established sport in Niger, but Djibo Issaka is the country's national champion. After taking a moment to recover from his race, he grinned from ear to ear as he headed back to the competitors tent.

Moussambani became a worldwide sensation in 2000 when he struggled to finish the men's 100 meter freestyle, leading to fears he might need to be rescued. The youngster from Equatorial Guinea had never previously swum in a 50-meter pool. After his remarkable moment, Moussambani was invited to countless events around the world and feted as a celebrity.

Perhaps a similar outcome awaits for Djibo Issaka.

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