The first sign something was different came when they removed their shirts. You wondered if these were swimmers or those reporting on them. Spare tires on an Olympic pool deck aren’t the stuff made for NBC highlights, but tucked beneath all the excess beat the same five-ringed hearts as those sculpted in the image of Adonis.
“I feel,” Kareem Valentine said, “that I should get a body like that, too.”
The Olympic movement is for everyone. The part about winning isn’t. If you have a flag and a dream, you receive an invitation to the opening ceremonies and an opportunity to compete. That part never should change, unless you want an Olympics every four years with just 40 or so nations, and what fun would the Games be without plump athletes in high-tech Speedo swimsuits making cannonball-type splashes?
The 50-meter freestyle on Thursday night at the Water Cube had 13 preliminary heats, 97 entrants and about 30 swimmers you could label as owning Olympic skill.
The same thing will happen when track and field begins today and the 100-meter prelims are staged. Countless tourist athletes wearing their nation’s colors will get drilled and enjoy every second of the beating.
No federations embrace the Olympic spirit like track and swimming, which encourage developing countries without lavish training facilities to participate in certain events and at the same time ensure neither the athlete nor anyone else suffers great bodily harm.
In other words, anything with bullets and sharp ends is out.
You might remember Eric “The Eel” Moussambani from Equatorial Guinea, who in Sydney eight years ago swam a 100-meter freestyle prelim in 1:52.72, or about as long as it takes for Michael Phelps to warm up, compete, accept another gold medal and take a nap.
The other two competitors in Moussambani’s event were disqualified after false starts, leaving the Eel to cover the distance alone. The poor guy nearly drowned, finished in twice the time of the eventual winner and became a fixture of Olympics folklore.
Valentine has a bit of that charm. He is 15 and from Antigua and Barbuda. His pool is the Caribbean Sea, which he swims in four times a week. There are no lane lines, just white and orange and yellow buoys bobbing up and down in the surf and set apart at 25 and 100 meters.
His high-tech training routine: He walks 10 miles from home, lathers himself in oil so jellyfish stings won’t penetrate as deeply, swims for three hours and walks 10 miles back. He made it here by first winning his national qualifying race, a two-mile swim between the islands of Nevis and St. Kitts. He is part of a swim club. It has seven members.
When he dived into the water Thursday, it was just the fourth time Valentine had been in a pool. One of the few ones in Antigua is at a local hotel. It is 8 feet deep and round.
“It’s like a bathtub,” said Bruce Williamson of the Antigua and Barbuda Amateur Association, who is here serving as Valentine’s coach. “We have plenty of sea and little money, so we advocate open-water swimming. … I am elated. My swimmer got here and did a personal best. He shaved three seconds off his time.
“That makes you the greatest thing at the Olympics.”
It makes you the greatest thing with a time of 31.23 seconds in the 50 free. It placed Valentine 96th out of the 97 entrants, faster than only Stany Kempompo Ngangola of the Democratic Republic of Conga, a 34-year-old electrical engineer whose qualifying time was listed as 1:15, painting him with Eel-like features that had far more reporters present than an ordinary 50-free prelim would draw.
Everyone showed up to see if a life preserver would be needed.
Ngangola insisted the qualifying time was wrong and that he was much faster. He was, splashing his way home in 35.19 seconds and dead last among 97.
“It not good,” Ngangola said. “I want 24 or 25 seconds. It not good.”
This is: In the first three heats alone Thursday, there were swimmers from Tajikistan and Bahrain and Tanzania and Maldives and Seychelles and Comoros and Laos and Burkina Faso.
At 5 p.m. local time, only 43 of 202 countries had won medals at these Games, and just 28 owned more than one. Not everyone gets the chance to stand on a podium and have a shiny object placed around his or her neck, but that doesn’t mean the spirit is lost.
The Olympics is for everyone.
“I will remember (mostly) my swim,” Valentine said. “My heart was pumping very fast when I saw the pool. I didn’t know if I could do this or not, but I did. I am very happy to be an Olympian.
“I believe one day I can win a medal.”
Ed Graney can be reached at 383-4618 or firstname.lastname@example.org.