How Eric the Eel wriggled past his President and into Britain

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The Independent Online

Eric "the eel" Moussambani, the Olympic swimmer who struggled to finish a race against nobody, yesterday ended an equally tortuous journey to Britain to present a television award.

Eric "the eel" Moussambani, the Olympic swimmer who struggled to finish a race against nobody, yesterday ended an equally tortuous journey to Britain to present a television award.

Mr Moussambani made it to Heathrow only after the intervention of a British High Commissioner, who had to prize him from the grasp of his own President, who was demanding he stay in Equatorial Guinea.

President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo even grounded Mr Moussambani's plane to try to make him attend a reception for his country's Olympic athletes.

He was allowed to leave after George Boon, British High Commissioner in Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon, persuaded the President his country's profile would be raised through the athlete appearing on television alongside Sir Trevor McDonald.

Mr Moussambani found worldwide fame at Sydney 2000 when he struggled to complete the 100m freestyle on his own after the other two contestants in the heat were disqualified. He recorded the slowest time for the event in Olympic history but opened himself up to a range of lucrative media opportunities.

His four-day odyssey to attend last night's National Television Awards began on Saturday when he left his home on a three-hour boat trip to Equatorial Guinea's capital, Malabo, on the Fernando Po island. That was followed by an 80-mile flight to Douala in Cameroon and a three-hour drive to that country's capital, Yaounde.

From there it should have been a simple eight-hour flight to Paris, where he would catch a connection to London. However his President realised Equatorial Guinea's most famous athlete was not going to be at the reception on its National Day and ordered his plane to be intercepted.

The plane was grounded for an hour while Mr Boon and the awards programme producer, George Mitchell, argued for the 22-year-old swimmer to be allowed to continue to Britain.

Sarah Ewing, programme spokeswoman, said the president allowed him to leave when he was persuaded Mr Moussambani's appearance alongside Sir Trevor, Sir Cliff Richard and Davina McCall would be in Equatorial Guinea's interest.

On arriving at Heathrow, Mr Moussambani said: "The president wanted to stage a reception for all the Olympic athletes but I had already agreed to come here. He has delayed the reception until the end of the week."

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