From Orange County to Athens

PETER BUFFA

Every two years, the world throws a party, and everybody comes. A few

thousand athletes from a few hundred countries pack their bags and

travel a really long way to wherever, compete like all get out for

two weeks, then go home.

It's called the Olympic Games.

A few athletes are famous before they get there, or will be when

they leave, but most will never be heard of, or from, before, during

or after. Why do they do it? No one knows. Countries that haven't a

thing in common and no contact whatsoever and, in some cases, can't

stand the sight of each other, get together every two years like

clockwork and say, "Let's play."

Is it commercial? Of course, it is. The Olympics are big business

and make lots of money for lots of companies. But most of the

countries and athletes involved won't see a drachma of it. In fact,

most have to scrimp and save and pay their own way to get there. Why

do they do it? I already told you. No one knows. But I'm glad they

do.

Orange County is always well-represented in the summer Olympics,

and Athens is no different. There are over 40 Orange County athletes

on Team USA, in more sports than you can shake a stick at, although

I've never understood why you would shake a stick at things to begin

with, or why you can only shake it at a certain number of them. There

are the big names, like USA women's soccer captain Julie Foudy from

Mission Viejo.

An impressive five members of the USA men's water polo players are

current or former Anteaters, as in UCI Anteaters, not real ones. Real

anteaters can't play water polo. Their legs are too short and it's

too hard to keep their snoots above water.

Another Olympian is super-swimmer Amanda Beard, who was born in

Newport Beach and now lives in Irvine, and it might just interest you

to know that beach volleyball superstar Misty May lives in Costa

Mesa, which is very close to here.

Misty May. Is that a cool name or what? I say it is. In fact, in

the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Misty was teamed with the all-time

cool-name champion of cool names -- Holly McPeak. You can see McPeak

now and then beneath the dome on Niketown at Triangle Square. She's

the one with the 6-foot-tall head in the sun-visor and wrap-around

sunglasses. "Misty May and Holly McPeak." I'm repeating myself, I

know, but if you had a name like mine you'd be obsessed with cool

names too.

Just one more, I promise. One of the stars of the USA women's

gymnastics team is "Courtney McCool." Anyway, May and her teammate,

Kerri Walsh, are the No. 1 ranked women's beach volleyball team in

the world, and the world is a very big place. A strained abdominal

muscle put May's excellent Greek adventure in doubt for a while, but

she's back, she's fit, she is ready. Before she pulled her muscle in

June, May and Walsh racked up an unheard-of 90 consecutive matches

and they will be the team to beat on the sands of Sparta.

Actually, there's one athlete who's not from Orange County who I'm

disappointed I apparently won't see this year. In fact, he couldn't

be from anywhere much farther away.

He's from Equatorial Guinea, a small country sandwiched between

Cameroon and Gabon on the western coast of Africa. His name is Eric

Moussambani. Doesn't ring a bell? Maybe his full name will: Eric "the

Eel" Moussambani. Still nothing? Try this. Moussambani was a swimmer,

sort of, in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Every Olympian wants to carve

out a place in the record books, and Eric Moussambani did just that

when he turned in one of the worst times ever recorded in an Olympic

100-meter freestyle heat. But things got weird even before Eric "the

Eel" hit the water. He ended up racing alone when both the other

swimmers in his heat were disqualified just before the start.

Moussambani had taken up swimming just eight months before the

Olympics, and it showed, a lot. Apparently, Equatorial Guinea has

only two swimming pools, neither of which is 100 meters long, so he

had to estimate how far 100 meters was in his practice sessions. He

underestimated, badly. After 50 meters, he was barely moving forward

and starting to flail his arms wildly. The crowd began applauding,

then cheering, then chanting Moussambani's name. At one point, he

actually stopped completely and tread water for a few seconds, trying

to regain his strength. With 25 meters left, some of the race

officials crouched beside the pool, trying to decide whether someone

should dive in and rescue Moussambani, who looked liked he had a

better chance of drowning than finishing. With a few meters left, the

crowd went wild, on their feet, screaming and cheering every,

agonizing meter until he finally touched the wall. Moussambani was an

instant celebrity around the world, but the International Olympic

Committee was so horrified that they are considering changing the

"wild card" rule that allows people like Eric "the Eel" to make it

into the big Olympic tent. Smaller countries that can't qualify

anyone for the Olympics through sanctioned trials can use a "wild

card" to get an individual or team into the competition with very few

questions asked -- thus, Eric "the Eel" and the now-famous Jamaican

bobsled team. Personally, I think that would be a terrible mistake.

Without the wild card, we would have never had Moussambani or ski

jumper Eddie the Eagle or the Jamaican bobsled team. Tragically,

Moussambani will reportedly not be allowed to compete in Athens

because of an administrative error in submitting his credentials for

the games.

It's the world's loss because Eric "the Eel" has been training

hard.

Moussambani has reportedly shaven about a minute off his time.

We don't want a better time, Eric. We just want you to survive. I

gotta go.

* PETER BUFFA is a former Costa Mesa mayor. His column runs

Sundays. He may be reached by e-mail at ptrb4@aol.com.

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