The lost Olympians

Saintly winner, clumsy villain, inspirational loser - each Olympics produces one character who catches the attention of the world. As the athletes gather for the opening of the Games in Athens, Adrian Turpin reveals what happened to the men and women who won fame - or notoriety - in the ultimate sporting arena

1948 London

The first summer Games since Berlin in 1936 is an austere affair, with food still rationed and competitors housed in military camps and colleges. Germany and Japan are not invited

Karoly Takacs: The disabled hero

Many of 1948's competitors had suffered the misfortunes of war, few so dramatically as Takacs. Born in Budapest in 1910, he had been a member of Hungary's pistol-shooting team at the World Championships in 1938. While a sergeant in the army, however, he handled a faulty grenade which exploded, shattering his right, shooting arm for good.

Initially, he was distraught at what seemed like the loss of both his career and his hobby. But he emerged from a month in hospital with new resolve: he would begin the laborious process of learning to shoot with his left hand. Within a year he had won the Hungarian pistol-shooting championship.

When Takacs arrived in London to compete in the rapid-fire pistol event, the world-record holder Carlos Enrique Diaz Saenz Valiente, asked why he had entered: "I'm here to learn," Takacs replied, before taking gold. From the second place on the medal rostrum Diaz Saenz Valiente turned to Takacs and said: "You have learnt enough."

Takacs successfully defended his title in Helsinki. After that, almost nothing was heard of him until his death in 1976, although oddly his story has become a favourite with Christian websites in America, which find inspiration in his tale of Lutheran faith, high-power weaponry and triumph over adversity.

1952 Helsinki

The USSR's first appearance at the Games, and the first Russian presence for 40 years. But the Eastern bloc athletes have their own Olympic village, an unprecedented and never-to-be-repeated happening

Emil Zatopek: The political pawn

With the emergence of the Communist bloc after 1945, it was only a matter of time before sport became a Cold War weapon. And Czechoslovakia's legendary long-distance runner Zatopek's triumphs in Helsinki were destined to make him a political figure.

Zatopek was not a pretty sight. He ran with a grimace on his face and his tongue lolling out. The New York Times even described him as "the most frightful horror spectacle since Frankenstein". He once said, "My running was very simple. I was sometimes like a mad dog." As a soldier, he trained by night, wearing heavy boots and a head torch. After he married, he did the washing by putting it in the bath and jogging on it.

While his idiosyncrasies may have endeared him to fellow competitors, Zatopek's raw talent and nonchalance must have driven them to distraction. After triumphing in the 10,000m in Helsinki, he entered the 5,000m ­ because "the marathon won't be for some time yet, so I must do something until then" ­ and won. That he'd never run a marathon didn't bother him. He simply sought out the world-record holder, Britain's Jim Peters, introduced himself on the starting line, then copied him. By the time the second competitor finished, Zatopek was signing autographs. Within eight days, the "Locomotive" had won three of the most gruelling events in the Olympics.

The dramas did not end on the track. He became a member of the Czech Communist Party. It was an offer he couldn't refuse, but meant that he had further to fall in 1968 when he supported Alexander Dubcek's reforms and opposed the Soviet invasion.

The consequences were savage. Zatopek was dismissed from the army and sent to work in a mine. It was seven years until the ministry of sport rescued him with an archivist's job.

By then his spirit was broken. In 1971, he recanted his deviation from Communist orthodoxy. He'd never meant to be a "wild one", he said; he would now be a loyal servant of the regime.

It was a sad postscript to his sporting life. But, after the fall of Communism, few held it against him ­ Zatopek, who died in 2002, was just too well-loved and his athletic achievements too great. And if he was, perhaps, the greatest athlete to fall foul of superpower politics, he was hardly alone.

1956 Melbourne

The first southern-hemisphere Games are played out in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the Suez crisis

Barry Larkin: The joker

At the end of the phone line in Melbourne, Barry Larkin sounds slightly gruff about being made to relive his moment of Olympic history again. "It's 50 years down the track, you know." Only slowly does he thaw, as he remembers how he and his friends pulled off the greatest hoax in Olympic history.

It was 1956, and the Olympic flame's journey took it from Cairns to Melbourne. Everything went smoothly until Sydney. "A few of my friends and I thought too much was being made of this Olympic torch business," says Larkin, now 68. "It was being treated as a god, whereas in fact it was originally invented by the Nazis for the Berlin Games in 1936. So we got a chair leg, some silver paint and an old plum-pudding can, and we made our own torch.

"We had a guy in white shorts and a white top to carry it, and another guy to dress up in his reserve airforce uniform and pretend to be a motorcycle outrider. One of them had some old army underpants from his national service days, so we covered them in what I guess must have been kerosene and chucked them in. Then we went into the crowd where everyone was waiting for the real torch and lit it."

At first, everyone knew it was a joke. Even the police laughed as the white-clad "athlete" took to the road. And then it all went wrong. The pants flew out as the designated runner swung his arms too hard. Panicked, he dropped the torch and shot off into the throng. "I suppose I should have known," says Larkin. "My friend Peter Gralton said, you pick up the torch while I get the flaming undies. I was stupid enough to believe him. When I picked the thing up, he kicked me up the arse and said, 'Run, you bastard.'

"The thing was the crowd closed around me. Now the people thought I really was the torchbearer. Before long I had a couple of police escorts."

By the time Larkin reached the town hall, he was getting nervous. "Pat Hills, the lord mayor, came rushing out without his paraphernalia, because he wasn't ready, and went straight into his speech. As I went down the steps, all I could think was walk, don't run... Apparently by the time the real torch turned up, half the crowd had gone home." Somehow, it seemed an appropriate way for Australia to welcome the Games for the first time.

Larkin, now a successful veterinary surgeon in Melbourne, managed to escape punishment. "The irony was that the guy who organised the real torch relay, Marc Marsden, had played football with me at the Melbourne Football Club. He helped me get away with everything.

"The next morning at breakfast, the rector of the college walked up to me and said, 'Well done, son.' I had an exam that morning. When I walked into the great hall, I got a standing ovation." He pauses for a second. "I failed, by the way. But that's another story."

1960 Rome

Pope John XXIII follows the canoeing from the balcony of his summer residence, the first pontiff to watch the Games. The US sprinter Wilma Rudolph wins three golds, despite being unable to walk until the age of 10 because of polio. A young boxer named Cassius Clay wins the light-heavyweight title

Abebe Bikila: The barefoot wonder

If Emil Zatopek's triumphs announced the rise of the great Eastern bloc athletes, it was after Abebe Bikila's victory that Africa's presence could no longer be ignored.

It's hard to imagine now the surprise that the wiry 28-year-old's victory caused. For a start, no black African had ever won an Olympic event, and Bikila was almost unknown outside Ethiopia, where he was a member of Emperor Haile Selassie's bodyguard. Then there was the matter of his footwear or, rather, the lack of it: Bikila chose to run barefoot.

That year's marathon was the first to take place at night, lit by the torches of Italian soldiers lining the route. As Bikila stood on the start beneath the Capitol, many spectators thought he was mad, as the cobblestones of the Appian Way would cripple him. Instead, he stormed to the gold.

The manner of his triumph contained a certain political irony, his final push for the finish beginning directly below the Obelisk of Axum, stolen from Bikila's homeland by Mussolini's troops during the Abyssinian war. At the medal ceremony, it is said, the band played the Italian anthem because they didn't know the tune for Ethiopia's.

Bikila's victory (repeated with shoes in 1964) would one day save him from being executed with the rest of the palace guard, after an attempted coup. But the future was cruel. Paralysed in a car crash in 1968, he spent five years confined to a wheelchair, before dying of a brain haemorrhage in 1973.

1964 Tokyo

Emperor Hirohito opens the first Asian Games. Long jumper Mary Rand and 800m runner Ann Packer take Britain's first golds in women's events. The biggest shock is a Dutchman winning the open class judo

Ewa Klobukowska: The X-woman

When is a woman athlete not a woman? Klobukowska (below, right) was hardly the most famous athlete at the Tokyo games. She took bronze in the 100m and was part of the Polish team that won the 100m relay. And that would have been that were it not for the international athletics authorities' decision three years later to start performing chromosome gender tests on competitors. Klobukowska was found to have an extra X chromosome, deemed not to be a woman for the purposes of competition, stripped of her Olympic bronze and publicly humiliated.

"I know what I am and how I feel," she said at the time. "It's a dirty and stupid thing to do to me." That bitterness seems all the more justified given that several years later she had a baby.

Questions of gender have dogged the Olympics for longer than might be thought. At the Berlin Games in 1936, a Polish journalist accused the women's 100m winner Helen Stephens of being a man, after the lanky farmer's daughter from Missouri beat the Polish favourite, Stanislawa Walasiewicz, into second place. Sour grapes, perhaps, but that didn't stop the Games' officials from performing a check and making a statement that Stephens was, indeed, female. (None of this controversy stopped Hitler feeling Walasiewicz up, as she later recalled: "He gets ahold of my fanny, and he begins to squeeze and pinch and hug me up, and he said, 'You're a true Aryan type.'")

The ironic coda to the story came 44 years later. Walasiewicz (who had changed her name to Stella Walsh on moving to the United States) was shot dead after witnessing an attempted robbery in Cleveland, Ohio. The autopsy revealed that Walasiewicz had male genitalia.

1968 Mexico

Dozens die after police crush student riots in Mexico City shortly before the Games; the competing nations turn a blind eye. High jumper Dick Fosbury debuts his revolutionary 'flop'. Bob Beamon annihilates the long-jump record. US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos cause establishment fury when they give a black-power salute on the winners' podium

Kip Keino: The philanthropist

In sporting terms, the Kenyan distance-runner's story is one of the Games' great yarns but he has a larger claim to respect. Having trained at altitude, in the West Highlands of his own country, Keino should have had an advantage in the thin air of Mexico City. After 8,900 metres, however, he was forced to pull out with severe stomach pain.

Keino's doctor told him that his gall-bladder infection was so bad he risked dying if he raced in the 5,000m. He ignored the advice and won gold. On the day of the 1,500m, still in pain, his bus got stuck in traffic on the way to the race. Unperturbed, Keino jogged the last two miles to the stadium, arriving moments before the start. This time he went on to win by an unheard of margin of seven seconds.

But athletics was only ever part of Keino's aura. For David Wallechinsky, the author of The Complete Book of the Olympics (a meticulously researched, 1,000-plus page doorstop of a book that tells you pretty much everything you ever wished or needed to know about the Olympics), Keino stands out as one of the Games' greatest heroes: "In 1998, I was in the same hotel as Keino for the Nagano Winter Olympics. After breakfast, we'd share a few words standing by the window, while we waited for our cars to come. It sounds corny to say it ­ I know it's an overused expression ­ but he just had this spiritual level.

"It was snowing. Right outside the window, there was this Japanese homeless man rummaging through a bin. Keino was absolutely fascinated. He looked up and remarked, 'I just wonder what he's looking for.' That was the way he thought about the world."

Keino only ever made around $20,000 from athletics ­ a tiny amount compared to today's stars. What he did earn, however, he ploughed back into his community. His own mother died when he was three, so after he stopped racing he began to adopt abandoned and orphaned children. What started as a small, personal gesture, eventually turned into a crusade. Before long, he had a 20-room compound with a library, chapels and dormitories. It is estimated that Keino ­ now aged 64 ­ has raised more than 250 children. He still runs for charity, even taking part in the 2002 London marathon.

1972 Munich

Terrorism overshadows sport as 11 Israeli athletes are kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists

Olga Korbut: The prodigy

For those who were in the Olympische Sportshalle and those who watched on television, the effect was equally joyous: "When I was a wee girl, it was Olga Korbut who captured my imagination when she somersaulted across my TV screen," revealed the BBC sports presenter Hazel Irvine. "From that moment I wanted to become an athlete."

Older spectators agreed. "She was doing things that no one else had done before," recalled Ursel Free, a veteran British gymnastics judge. "She had guts. She was pert. She had a large smile and cute hand movements. She looked as though she was enjoying herself and she made everybody else enjoy it. Everybody thought so ­ the world thought so. The whole of the stadium was following her every move. She had them in the palm of her hand."

Korbut did not even win the overall women's medal at Munich: she finished seventh. But nobody cared. The 17-year-old from Belarus had gone to the Games an unknown. By the time she returned home with her three gold medals and one silver, her local post-office in Grodno, Belarus, needed a special clerk to sort her mail.

Only years later did anyone get an idea of what the cost might have been. Korbut alleged that she had been forced to have sex with the Soviet team coach, Renald Knysh, and that she had not been allowed to have her first period until she was 21. The pressure to tour with the Soviet team after Munich ­ more circus-show than gymnastic display ­ exhausted her, and she was dropped from the team after a disappointing Games in Montreal. At 22, Olga Korbut was already a has-been.

The years since have not been entirely happy ones. Since moving to the United States in 1992, Korbut seem to have found it hard to adapt. Criticised for pushing the children she has coached too hard, she responded by calling American kids lazy: "They will never become world-class gymnasts because they are too spoilt." A messy split from her first husband, the Belarusian rock singer Leonid Bortkevich, was followed by accusations of shop-lifting in 2002. Korbut was alleged to have taken $19.95 of cheese, figs, Earl Grey tea and other goods from the Publix supermarket in Atlanta. She only avoided criminal charges after agreeing to pay $333 to attend a course in "values".

Not long after this, her son Richard was arrested for possession of $35,000 in counterfeit money. If that was not bad enough, Korbut also agreed to appear on the Fox Channel's celebrity boxing show.

Perhaps Korbut got off lightly compared to Tamara Lazakovich, her fellow Belarusian who won the women's overall bronze at Munich. Lazakovich spent years in prison after being convicted of larceny and drank herself to death in 1992.

It's hard to look in the same way at those grainy images of the tiny girl-woman from 1972 when you know what was going on at the time ­ and what happened next. Somehow Alan Weeks's much-quoted commentary, "Isn't she marvellous!" seems immeasurably sad.

1976 Montreal

Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci scores the first perfect 10 in gymnastics, then repeats the feat six times. David Wilkie wins Britain's first swimming gold since 1908. Russian fencer Boris Onishenko is disqualified for hiding a remote-control device in his weapon. Polish discus thrower Danuta Rosani is first Olympic competitor to be expelled for drugs

Sandra Henderson & Stephane Prefontaine: The lovers

The symbolism was crude, even by Olympic standards. Henderson, an English-speaking girl from Toronto, and Prefontaine, a French-speaking Quebecois, would light the Olympic flame to begin the Games. Between them the 15-year-olds, selected for being two of Canada's most promising athletes, would embody that country's multicultural heritage.

The press lapped up this cute double-act. Henderson became only the second woman to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine, a fact that says as much about the male-centred nature of 1970s sport, as it does about Montreal's opening ceremony.

But no one could know how literally the teenagers would take their symbolic union. Years later they married, making them perhaps the Olympics' most romantic couple.

1980 Moscow

Steve Ovett (800m) and Sebastian Coe (1,500m) win golds. Allan Wells takes advantage of the US boycott to claim the 100m

Anita DeFrantz: The protester

In 1980, politics had returned to the Olympic arena with a vengeance (if it had ever been absent). President Carter decided to take a stand over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. If the US Olympic Committee (USOC) decided to send athletes to the Games, the administration would withdraw its tax exemptions. This was, in effect, a government ban.

For the athletes, it was crushing. DeFrantz a Princeton-educated, African-American lawyer, and member of the rowing team, took it upon herself to lead the opposition to the boycott. Since she was also spokeswoman for the USOC Athletes Advisory Council, this put her in the strange position of suing her own organisation. A 25-person class-action suit ­ in which DeFrantz was the named plaintiff ­ argued that the USOC had no authority to stop Americans competing.

DeFrantz received malicious phone-calls and hate mail. In the only humorous twist to a sorry tale, she was asked by a pro-Stalinist group to come and live with them in Moscow. "It was like, uhh, this is all very nice, but the reason I want to go is to compete."

The case was thrown out and the boycott went ahead. Remarkably, it did not stop DeFrantz's rise through the ranks of the Olympic movement. In 1984, she was instrumental in persuading 45 African nations not to boycott the games after Britain brought South African runner Zola Budd into its team.

Today, the one-time hate figure is vice-president of the International Olympic Committee. And she has no regrets: "What could I have done differently? I was one athlete down to my last pennies who was the best I could be. It's important for athletes to have the right to choose and that was taken away."

1984 Los Angeles

After Moscow, a tit-for-tat Soviet-bloc boycott thins the field. The US's Carl Lewis is the talk of the Games, with golds in the 100m, 200m, long jump and relay

Gabriela Andersen-Scheiss: The masochist

The Los Angeles Games of 1984 were the first in which women were allowed to compete in the marathon, following a long campaign by female runners.

Emotions were running high, so was the temperature: 90 degrees and smoggy. Twenty minutes after the winner finished, the Swiss athlete Gabriela Andersen-Scheiss, a ski-instructor who lived in Idaho, entered the stadium. Her right leg was stiff, and her left arm flopped beside her. She looked, in the words of the New York Times, "like a brave bull after the picadors have done their cruel business".

The following lap was the slowest and one of the most dramatic in Games history. Disoriented, Andersen-Scheiss tottered from lane to lane, but every time a medic tried to touch her (which would have meant an instant end to her race), she gestured them away. They allowed her to stumble on, reasoning that since she was still sweating she had not succumbed to heatstroke. But for five minutes and 44 agonising yet enthralling seconds, the crowd watched her stagger home.

When she finally crossed the line, and collapsed into the arms of three doctors, the stadium erupted. Two weeks later, Olympics historian Wallechinsky reports, Andersen-Scheiss finished fifth in a race which involved running for 290 miles and horse-riding for 18.

But her performance in Los Angeles left two permanent legacies. The first was the "Scheiss rule", which allows athletes to be examined on the track without being disqualified; and the second was to kill any residual, Victorian notions that endurance racing was not a sport for women.

1988 Seoul

Canada's Ben Johnson smashes the world 100m record before being disqualified for doping offences and US sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner, aka Flo Jo, wins three golds and a silver. The Olympic cauldron burns many of the pigeons released during the opening ceremony

Greg Louganis: The secret-keeper

Louganis never had it easy. His classmates in El Cajon, California, mocked him for his dyslexia and called him "nigger" because he was half-Samoan. By his teens he was, he wrote in his autobiography, an alcoholic. At 13, he was arrested for kicking his adoptive mother in the chest. The strangest part of Louganis's story, then, is that he became a world-class diver at all, winning four golds and a silver in his Olympic career, but it is for one mistake in Seoul that he will always be remembered.

It was the ninth dive of the preliminary round of the springboard ­ an event in which Louganis was defending his title. He was attempting a reverse two-and-a-half somersault in the pike position. But as he lifted off it was clear he had miscalculated. As his head clipped the edge of the board, there was an audible intake of breath from the spectators. He plunged inelegantly into the pool. You could hear the release of collective tension when he surfaced and managed to swim to the side under his own power. The damage was surprisingly minor. His coach, Ron O'Brien, wiped away the blood with his fingers, so as not to let the Chinese team see he was hurt. Louganis completed his final dive and was left with five stitches.

Unknown to the crowd, though, another, secret drama was being played out. Six months before the Games, Louganis had learnt he was HIV positive. During the competition, he worried that his alarm that rang when he should take his medication would wake his fellow athletes. Whenever asked about the pills he continually took, he replied that they were aspirin for a sore shoulder.

After his accident, he was tormented (unnecessarily) by the idea that his blood might have infected not just O'Brien and the doctor who first stitched him, but also the other divers, since he had bled into the pool.

The next week, after winning the platform-diving gold, he burst into tears as he embraced O'Brien. "People assumed Louganis was crying because he had won a close contest with the final dive of his career," Wallechinsky wrote. "What O'Brien said to Louganis in those touching moments was, 'Nobody will ever know what we've been through.'"

Louganis now makes his living as a motivational speaker and writer. His most recent book, For the Life of Your Dog, offers the canine pet a little Olympic discipline.

1992 Barcelona

Germany competes as one team, but the Balkan states fragment. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth of Independent States ­ the remnants of the Soviet Union ­ make their final appearance

Polin Belisle: The cheat

Nobody loves a cheat, though it helps if you do it in style. Born in Honduras and brought up in Belize, Polin Belisle always wanted to be a marathon runner. He may not have had the talent, but he certainly had the brass neck.

In 1988, Belisle had convinced the Belizean Olympic selectors that he was good enough for Seoul after apparently posting an impressive two hours, 36 minutes and 18 seconds at the Long Beach marathon.

It must have come as a disappointment to them when he finished at Seoul in three hours and 14 minutes. But at least he did finish: that wasn't always the case. In 1991, Belisle was disqualified after finishing fifth in another Long Beach marathon after close-circuit cameras "failed" to pick him up during the middle of the race.

He was similarly invisible during the mid-stages of the next year's LA marathon. Again he was disqualified. Meanwhile, the LA Times alleged that he had conned $3,000 from an un-named Grammy Award-winning musician.

If Belize had thought of picking him for the Barcelona Games (unlikely, even on sporting grounds), they thought again. Belisle, however, was not deterred, using the name Apolineria Belisle Gomez, he applied to represent Honduras and was accepted.

Only when his name was spotted on a list by Belizean athletes, was he thrown out of the Games. But, like all the best tricksters, Belisle would have one last laugh. He may have been expelled, but nobody had bothered to take away his identity card or race number. On the day of the race, he bluffed his way to the start-line, led for most of the first of the mile, then slipped away into the crowd.

Since then, he has apparently made an effort to clean up his act, recording honest times in various events. According to Joe Henderson of Runner's World magazine, who tracks the con artists of the athletics world, "He was caught cheating and owned up to it." Although whether he ever paid back the $3,000 nobody seems to know.

1996 Atlanta

President Clinton opens the Games which, for the first time, have a turn-out from all 197 countries affiliated to the Olympics. Muhammad Ali lights the stadium flame. British rower Steve Redgrave wins his fourth gold medal in four Games

Richard Jewell: The accused

When terror came to the Games for the second time in its history, Richard Jewell was initially hailed for his bravery. A security guard at Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park, he noticed a suspiciously unattended green knapsack, alerted the police and ushered the crowd away from it. When the pipe bomb inside exploded, it killed one person and injured more than 100. "I did not set out to be a hero," Jewell later said, but without his intervention the death toll could have been in the dozens.

Within days, though, he became the FBI's number-one suspect. Jewell's treatment at the hands of the Bureau would not look out of place in a Kafka novel. Instead of arresting him, they first invited him to talk to them pretending it was a training video. His name was leaked to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper, which on 30 July ran a special afternoon edition. Jewell was caricatured as a loner, a mummy's boy (at the age of 34 he lived with his mother) and a police wannabe.

The steps of Centennial Park had been graffitied by the security guards. Jewell's contribution, "IF YOU DIDN'T GO PAST ME, YOU ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE AND LIFE IS TOUGH. TOUGHER WHEN YOU ARE STUPID", was offered as further evidence of his unstable character. In fact the second phrase was taken from Jewell's hero, John Wayne.

Eight months after the initial accusation, he was informed in a letter that he was no longer a suspect. The FBI did not repeat the press conference that had accompanied his arrest. Eight years is a career for many athletes. But, for Jewell, there are still loose ends from the Atlanta Games. A libel case against the Atlanta Journal-Constitution remains to be resolved. Meanwhile, Eric Rudolph ­ who has been accused of the Olympic murder as well as attacks on abortion clinics and a lesbian nightclub ­ still awaits trial. He is due to appear in court in May next year.

2000 Sydney

Cathy Freeman wins the 400m in front of a Games record crowd of 112,524. Fellow Australian, Ian Thorpe, dominates the men's swimming. NBC pays $705m for the US television rights

Eric Moussambani: The underdog

Looking back at the "triumph" of Eric "the Eel" Moussambani, it is hard to know what to make of it. Was the Games' worst swimmer an embodiment of the Olympics' long-departed amateur spirit? Or was he stooge of multinational businesses and news organisations desperate for a human-interest story?

Moussambani was the unlikeliest competitor in the 100m freestyle. "I had never heard of the Olympics," he told one interviewer. Equatorial Guinea had been offered a wildcard. Moussambani, as a keen basketball and football player, was invited to try out but he had hardly swum before. That the 22-year-old won the national trials was as much due to lack of competition as talent.

Then there were the facilities. Equatorial Guinea does not have an Olympic-size pool. A hotel in the capital Malabo had a 20m pool, but Moussambani could not afford the fees, so his training was restricted to an hour a week on Sunday mornings.

The preliminary heat in Sydney was a farce. Moussambani faced competitors from Niger and Tajikistan. Both false-started (some observers suggested this may have been deliberate, to avoid embarrassment). Even then, Moussambani nearly didn't make it. Ten metres from the line he came to a halt, flailing and paddling water. Only the crowd's cheers propelled him to the finish.

The time, one minute, 52.72 seconds was more than a minute longer than the Olympic record, and he retired to the changing-rooms in tears. It wasn't until the next day that he realised the pictures of his race had transfixed millions of people across the globe.

The media feeding frenzy began. Moussambani was signed up by Speedo, who gave him a high-tech "shark" suit. He found a coach in Barcelona but there was, he said after the Games, little time for training. He was too busy appearing on the BBC Sports Personality of the Years Awards and flying round the world. Several of the interviews he gave in the year after the Games concentrate on the woman he met and his understandable excitement at enjoying Western luxuries for the first time. Even the progress he made in the pool was double-edged ­ at the 2001 championships in Fukuoka, he finished 88 out of 91 in the 50m, beating an Antiguan by almost six seconds. You could see it as a crisis of sorts: he still wasn't much good, but he was no longer the worst. He had lost his USP.

And then Moussambani seemed to disappear. It's rumoured that his good fortune and relative wealth made him enemies at home, rumours too that he is in training for Athens. At the time of going to press, the IOC had no information about whether he had been entered. If Eric the Eel does turn up, he will probably cut a rather different figure.

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Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones