SPORTS

Niger rower, known as the 'Sculling Sloth,' back on water to big cheers at London Olympics

07/31/2012 12:04 EDT | Updated 09/30/2012 05:12 EDT
WINDSOR, England - Blazing a trail for rowing in Niger, the man known as the "Sculling Sloth" was back on the water Tuesday.

Unfortunately for Hamadou Djibo Issaka, he's getting even slower.

The 35-year-old west African, who is competing at the London Olympics despite having only three months of proper rowing experience, has become an unlikely star of the 2012 games.

He captured the hearts of spectators and media alike with two painfully laboured displays in the men's single sculls over the weekend, finishing nearly two minutes behind the winners of his heat and repechage.

But he hadn't finished there.

Complete with the warmest of smiles and an extraordinary spirit, Djibo Issaka lit up a grey day at Dorney Lake by pushing his body to the limit in a lower qualification race.

Again the crowd willed him on like he was one of their own. Again he crossed the line with his boat almost at a standstill.

His time of 9 minutes, 7.99 seconds for the 2,000-meter course was the slowest of his three races at the regatta by 28 seconds.

But that would be missing the point entirely.

In December last year, Djibo Issaka was learning the basics of rowing in a wooden fishing boat in his home city of Niamey, the Niger capital where he lives with his two children. Niger is landlocked and 80 per cent desert. Rivers are few and far between. Rowing clubs? What rowing clubs.

"Before this week, I hadn't been in a (professional sculling) boat before," he said. "There aren't these kind of boats in Africa."

The moment that would change his life had come a month earlier, in November, when the Niger Swimming Federation sent him to Egypt to try out rowing at a camp for developing African nations who had shown an interest in taking up a wild card for the Olympics from the IOC Tripartite Commission. This is a body which allows each National Olympic Committee to enter up to five athletes for the Summer Games, with the intention of strengthening the "principle of universal representation."

He clearly had an aptitude for sport — he represented Niger in swimming in Africa-zone competitions mainly over 50 metre across all disciplines — but this would prove a baptism of fire in rowing.

At the start of that two-week camp in Alexandria, he took the first step of his new career by climbing into a vessel — and promptly toppling out of it.

"I fell out," he said, chuckling. "But as a swimmer, that wasn't a problem."

The following week, he took part in what can loosely be described as an African trial. In a position he would start getting accustomed to, he finished last of the six competitors.

But from then on, the London Olympics were his goal. His regular jobs as a gardener and a worker at a children's swimming pool took a back seat as he dedicated himself to rowing.

He went for two months of training at the International Rowing Development Centre in Tunisia, and then on to the Belgian town of Hazewinkel for a pre-Olympic camp. It added up to only three months of proper rowing experience, including a maximum of seven races over the Olympic distance of 2,000 metres, but that's all there was time for before he made his way to Dorney Lake.

In short, it's been a steep learning curve.

"We see that Hamadou has potential, so for us I think it's been a good performance for him," said Ahmadou Youssoufou, a member of the Niger NOC and president of the country's water sports federation. "Hamadou has only three months of experience in the sport. We are very proud of him."

On Tuesday, Djibo Issaka sat in his scull in the starting block, wearing a yellow T-shirt underneath his orange-and-green Niger jersey and strengthened by a breakfast of chicken and beef. When the announcer read out his name, he was given a huge cheer by the packed grandstands.

Rowing against competitors from El Salvador, Hong Kong and Peru, Djibo Issaka quickly fell behind. "It's going to be hard for the Niger athlete to come back now," remarked the announcer at the 500-meter mark.

By the time Sau Wah So of Hong Kong crossed the line to win the race, Djibo Issaka still had 300 metres left to row but the ovation he received was tremendous.

"Give him a big cheer for plowing on," the announcer said.

Like on Sunday after his repechage, he bent over as soon as he crossed the line, taking deep breaths.

"I am very happy because this is my first time at an Olympics," he said. "It's not easy for me to be here. I don't have any technique. But with the time and the years, I'll get the technique."

Reporters scurried in their droves to catch a word with a man who has earned him the nicknames "Issaka the Otter," ''Hamadou The Keel" and "Djibo the Jellyfish" among others.

But it's not the last we'll see of him at the Olympics.

First, he will return on Friday for all-African "F'' final against Aymen Mejri of Tunisia and Paul Etia Ndoumbe of Cameroon, who both finished in under 8 minutes in their races Tuesday. That will determine who finishes 31st, 32nd and 33rd at the games.

His longer-term goal, though, is to compete at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

"I'm getting ready for it," he said. "I hope to train in Niger. Maybe new boats will be there now so I will be able to do it."

Youssoufou confirmed that would be the case.

"Through FISA, we are getting two single sculls and two double sculls and some oars," Youssoufou said. "They are coming in the next month so we can begin this sport in our country with the equipment.

"At the next Olympics, Hamadou will be stronger. And faster."

MORE:cpSports