A portly swimmer being dubbed ‘Robel the Whale’ after splashing home half a lap behind his rivals has emerged -- very slowly -- as one of the people’s favourites at the Rio Olympics.
Ethiopia’s Robel Kiros Habte evoked memories of ‘Eric the Eel,’ the dashing no-hoper who flopped around like a freshly caught tuna at the 2000 Sydney Games, with his performance in the men’s 100m freestyle heats.
Considerably less chiselled than your average top swimmer, Habte follows in the footsteps of ski jumper ‘Eddie the Eagle’ or the Jamaican bobsled team as athletes the man on the street can relate to -- no airs or graces, just honest graft.
“Everyday you wake up in Ethiopia, you run,” said Habte after clocking a time of one minutes, 4.95 seconds in Tuesday’s heats, sparking a huge roar from the Brazilian crowd.
“But I didn’t want to run, I wanted to be a swimmer,” added the university student, ranked 59th out of 59 competitors in the 100m prelims. “We don’t have any swimming coaches in Ethiopia but I wanted to do something different.”
He’s certainly that -- and then some.
Pictures and videos of Habte’s waistline went viral, but some Ethiopian nationals questioned how he came to be selected for the Olympics, suggesting online the 24-year-old only made the team because he happens to be the son of the country’s swimming boss.
Despite being splashed across the world’s media Wednesday, Habte’s time was considerably quicker than that Eric Moussambani posted in Sydney in a time that did not so much require a stopwatch as an egg timer.
His time of 1:52.72 was more than double that of the top swimmers, earning him his famous nickname. Still, Moussambani later went on the become coach of the national swimming squad of Equatorial Guinea.
Habte’s heroes are Ethiopia’s great endurance stars such as Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele.
“Every day, they run and win in a stadium and they get the flag,” said the well-built swimmer who finished well outside his personal best of 59.08. “That’s why I want to be like them. I do train by running but I want different things.”
Habte struck a defiant tone despite his glorious failure.
“I don’t know why I was slower today but it didn’t matter where I finished,” he said, brushing aside the body-shaming remarks.
“I want to be an Olympic swimmer doing it for my country. And there was just me -- Olympic swimmer.”