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Niger rower wins spectators’ hearts

By Onochie Anibeze

Hamadou Djibo Issaka, the Niger rower who was entered for the London Olympics despite only having three months of experience in the sport.

Issaka captivated the crowds over the weekend with show-stopping turns in the heats and the repechage of the men’s single sculls, when he crawled over the line out of breath to finish nearly two minutes behind the winners.

Competing in a lower qualification race this time, he again placed last in his four-boat race and this time he was even slower, clocking 9 minutes, 7.99 seconds over 2,000 meters — 28 seconds slower than his repechage time.

Wearing a yellow T-shirt underneath his orange-and-green Niger jersey, he was given a rousing reception as he passed the main grandstands 300 meters from the finish line. “Give him a big cheer for plowing on,” the announcer said.

Like on Sunday, 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,” the 35-year-old Djibo Issaka said. “It’s not easy for me to be here. I don’t have any technique. I’ve been learning only three months. 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 captured the imagination of spectators and the media alike, earning him the nicknames “Issaka the Otter” and “Hamadou The Keel” among others.

His displays on Dorney Lake have brought back memories of Eric “The Eel” Moussambani, the Equatorial Guinea swimmer who memorably splashed his way through a 100-meter freestyle heat at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Djibo Issaka lives in Niamey, the capital of Niger — a landlocked country in west Africa that is 80 percent desert. He has two kids — a boy and a girl.

When he isn’t learning to row, he earns a living gardening and working at a children’s swimming pool. He swam at a competitive level over distances of 50 and 100 meters back in Niger but turned to rowing when the Niger Swimming Federation sent him to Egypt to try it out.

He received a wild card for the Olympics from the IOC Tripartite Commission, which allows each National Olympic Committee to enter up to five athletes for the Summer Games. “Before this week, I hadn’t been in a (professional) boat before. There aren’t these kind of boats in Africa,” he said.

Strengthened on a breakfast of chicken and beef, he took to the water Tuesday and was given a huge cheer by the packed grandstands when his name was read out before the race.

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 meters left to row but the ovation he received was tremendous. “I am very happy because they encouraged me and helped me finish. It’s all about courage,” he said.

It’s not the last we’ll see of him at the Olympics. First, he will return on Friday for the “F’’ final against Aymen Mejri of Tunisia and Paul Etia Ndoumbe, who both finished in under 8 minutes in their races Tuesday.

But his longer-term goal 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.”


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