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Olympic Rowing: Niger Rower Hamadou Djibo Issaka Crawls Home To Roaring Crowd

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People in the grandstand covered themselves with umbrellas while it rained at the rowing venue in Eton Dorney, near Windsor, England, at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, July 29, 2012.
People in the grandstand covered themselves with umbrellas while it rained at the rowing venue in Eton Dorney, near Windsor, England, at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, July 29, 2012.

WINDSOR, England — "You can do it," screamed the announcer. Some in the packed grandstands were on their feet, roaring him to the line.

After hearing the finishing horn, he slumped over in his boat, totally spent. After a few seconds, he lifted his head and saluted the crowd, a grin as wide as all Dorney Lake.

No, this wasn't a British rower in a race for Olympic gold in front of his home fans. This was Hamadou Djibo Issaka, crawling to the finish in last place in a single sculls repechage.

Djibo Issaka is 35 years old and from Niger in West Africa. He learned how to row only three months ago and has a technique that can generously be described as crude.

But there he was, under threatening skies, sloshing in the water in an orange and green shirt, pushing through the pain barrier like any other Olympic rower. He finished nearly 1 minute, 40 seconds behind the winner. He also drew one of the biggest rounds of applause of the day.

"It went well," he said in French to The Associated Press. "I passed the finish line. It was great."

Why is Djibo Issaka in the Olympics, competing against rowing's elite? He received a wild card from the IOC Tripartite Commission, which allows each National Olympic Committee to enter up to five athletes for the Summer Games.

His appearance recalls that of a couple of other hapless Olympians.

There was Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards, a British ski jumper who became wildly popular after finishing a distant last at the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988.

There was also Eric "The Eel" Moussambani, the Equatorial Guinea swimmer who captivated a world audience by flailing his way through the 100-meter freestyle at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. His time was more than twice that of the heat winner.

And now there's Hamadou "The Sculling Sloth," as he's now dubbed in the British media.

Djibo Issaka, however, is not without titles. He is Niger's national rowing champion.

"I have no technique," he says. "I only have strength."

Until May, he had been nowhere near a single scull. In fact, he probably wouldn't have known what one was. He was, after all, a swimmer and the closest he had come to rowing was watching it on TV.

That all changed when the Niger Swimming Federation sent him to Egypt to try rowing. He then went for more training at the International Rowing Development Centre in Tunisia for two months.

With his spot in the Olympics set, he headed to the Belgian town of Hazewinkel for his final key preparations. Now, he's at the Olympics, a long, long way from Hazewinkel.

On Saturday, Niger's top leaders were in the stands when he finished last in his heat. His time was 8:25.56. He was 14 seconds slower a day later.

"I tried," he said. "I tried to make a good time."

His four rivals were stretching in the warmup lake by the time Djibo Issaka approached the finish line. His technique – such as it is – was all over the place. His head rolled as he sought a last drop of energy in the final 100 meters. He grimaced, he squirmed. Ultimately, the line came to his rescue.

His boat stopped there and then. But the applause didn't.

"There were so many people encouraging me," he said, turning to the grandstand as the competition continued behind him. "I was happy to finish under their applause. Really, I'm happy for the whole country."

Not everyone, however, was happy to see Djibo Issaka at the Olympics. Steve Redgrave, a five-time Olympic rowing gold medalist and one of Britain's greatest Olympians, was among the party-poopers.

"There are better scullers from different countries who are not allowed to compete because of the different countries you've got," he was quoted as saying Saturday.

Said Matt Smith, general secretary of rowing's governing body: "It's a fair comment if you don't have the background to how these rowers get those positions and how big it is for a country to be at Olympic Games."

Smith said he wrote to Redgrave on Sunday, explaining the IOC program. Djibo Issaka hadn't actually taken the place of another sculler – he was simply added to the list of starters.

"We are so proud," Smith said. "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."

This is not the end of Djibo Issaka's Olympics. He'll be back at Dorney Lake on Tuesday for the races to determine the lesser positions.

"I'm preparing for the next competition," he said. "I'm happy with how things have gone."

Djibo Issaka doesn't return to Niger until Aug. 14. While he won't be heading home with medals, he says the Olympics have opened his eyes to another world.

On Friday, instead of being in bed before his early-morning heat the next day, he was inside Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony. He had been advised not to go, but he couldn't resist.

"It was magnificent," he said. "I had never seen fireworks before in my life!"

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