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The start of something extraordinary

Ross Bragg - The Man on the lane of “Eric the Eel”

(An image of Eric Moussabani with Ross Bragg standing behind him as Inspector of Turns)


Swimming New Zealand caught up with Ross Bragg, a technical official of fifty years, SNZ Life Member and an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services of swimming. 

20 years ago, Ross was appointed a Judge at the Sydney 2000 Olympics and IOT (Inspector Of Turns) on lane 5, the lane in which Eric Moussambani swam his heat of the Men’s 100m Freestyle and gained brief international fame for an unlikely victory. Eric, who was nicknamed “Eric the Eel” by the media, holds the Olympic Record of the unprecedentedly slow time of 1:52.72.

Ross, who has officiated at many international swimming competitions in his time, has visited 35 countries and 42 cities. Besides being a TAC member for 28 years, Ross was also a member of the Technical International panels for IPC Swimming and Special Olympics International.

On Tuesday 19th September 2000, Ross explains how there were originally three swimmers in the heat of the Men’s 100m Freestyle. These swimmers had been selected under the Olympics Spirit for Developing Countries from Nigeria, Tajikistan and Equatorial Guinea.

Following the Referee’s whistle, the swimmers mounted the blocks and the Starter called, “take your marks”. Swimmers in lane 3 and 4, both false started and exited the water. The referee blew his whistle to start the race again and all swimmers mounted the blocks for a second time, then asked to stand down. Swimmers in lane 3 and 4 were disqualified for a false start. When the referee blew his whistle again, for the third time, Eric said to Ross, “what is going on?”. Ross answered, “you’re swimming on your own!”

Once the race got underway, it became obvious to everyone watching that Eric was not swimming very well. Ross recalled the 18,000 people in the crowd starting to cheer him on. It was thought by most, that Eric might not even make the 50-metre end. In an article by Eric just recently, he himself thought he wouldn’t make it. His previous experience up until that time had been swim training in a lake and later a 12-metre swimming pool in a hotel in his home country of Equatorial Guinea. Eric claimed the crowd noise was what kept him going.

Ross said, “The crowd noise was unbelievable. All standing, clapping, cheering, yelling, and  foot stamping.” Eric truly struggled in the second lap, “I fully expected him to stop and hold  onto the lane rope.” Ross remembers from 20 years ago. Eric kept going somehow and finished the race in 1:52.72 seconds.

(Video footage of "Eric the Eel" swimming the Men's 100m Freestyle heat at the Sydney 2000 Olympics)

The next day, the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper had a front-page photo of Eric at the finish with Ross standing over the lane observing. The late Bill Matson said to Ross, “that photo will be all around the world tomorrow” and he was right!

Eric was a hero. Photos, interviews and VIP functions were part of his activities for days after. With the new famous nickname of “Eric the Eel”, T-Shirts were produced for sale. Michael Klim the great Australian swimmer jokingly said to him, “how come you got a nickname and we have not?”

The most recent article states that Eric has since reduced his Olympic time by about one minute. He is employed as the coach of the Equatorial Guinea national swim team of 12 swimmers.

Ross gets refreshed on that memorable moment every year; his daughter Penny who lives in Australia with her family rings him to say, “the Australian TV is recapping the great Olympic Games and we saw you and Eric again!”

Besides the President of the International Olympic Committee, Antonio Samaranch saying “the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games was, ‘The Best Ever’”, the Eric episode kicked it all off to a great start, with a great example of what the Olympic Spirit is all about. Ross said, “I have special memories of this, the whole swimming week and my first Olympic Games.”

Although retired now, Ross gave the reason as to why he officiated for as long as fifty years, “The challenges, experiences, satisfaction and enjoyment working with the swimming fraternity are the main reasons I continued this journey.”

Times have certainly changed. When Ross started officiating at swim meets, there was no electronic timing and overhead video footage of turns and finishes. Ross showed us a picture of his first stopwatch that he used when he first started to officiate, “a wind-up, sweep hand stopwatch was what we all used before the electronic models came out. It is a beautiful piece of technology and still works perfectly now."