Niger’s Hamadou Djibo Issaka is an unlikely pioneer for rowing, given he has just three months’ experience in the sport and he trained for the Olympics in an old fishing boat.
But the 35-year-old’s exploits in London will kick-start a rowing programme in Niger, whose Olympic officials now plan to take the sport more seriously.
Djibo Issaka has been taken to the hearts of the Eton Dorney crowd after finishing a distant last in his heat, his repechage and again in today’s E semi-final.
He was roared every painfully slow stroke of the way down the two kilometre course, eventually finishing one minute 10 seconds behind his nearest rival.
And he is getting slower.
Today’s time of nine minutes and 7.29 seconds today was 28 seconds worse than his performance in the repechage.
But Djibo Issaka, a former national swimmer, is doing his country proud and he will be at the vanguard of Niger’s attempts to adopt rowing as a serious sport.
First they need rowing boats. The land-locked sub-Saharan country will only take delivery of its first proper equipment following the Olympic Games.
”Now, we don’t have any boats. No boats,” Ahmadou Youssoufou, a member of the Niger Olympic Committee, said.
”With the help of Fisa (world rowing’s governing body) we are getting two single sculls and two double sculls and some oars.
”They are coming in the next month so we can begin this sport in our country with the equipment.
”We have rivers and we have lakes. We think we have a real potential to do this sport in our country.
”We think that we have to look for more equipment so more people can participate.
”We see that Hamadou has potential so for us. I think it is a good performance for him. We are very proud of him.
”At the next Olympics, Hamadou will be stronger and faster.”
Djibo Issaka’s performances have been compared to Equatorial Guinea swimmer Eric ‘The Eel’ Moussambani and Britain’s ski-jumper Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards.
Nicknames being banded about Eton Dorney have included ‘Issaka the Otter’ and ‘Djibo the Jellyfish’.
His route to London 2012 has been an unusual one to say the least.
Djibo Issaka represented his country as a swimmer before being sent to Egypt last November to attend camp for African nations who had an interest in taking up an Olympic wildcard entry.
The first time Djibo Issaka stepped in a boat he fell straight out again.
”But as a swimmer, that wasn’t a problem,” he laughed.
At the end of that fortnight in Alexandria, Djibo Issaka finished sixth in his first ever race before returning to Niger to continue his rowing education in the fishing boat.
”Before this week, I hadn’t been in an Olympic boat before because there aren’t these kind of boats in Africa,” he said.
From May, Djibo Issaka went to training camps in Tunisia and then Belgium before arriving at the Olympic Games as part of a 33-competitor single sculling field.
He had only completed six or seven races over 2,000 metres when he took the water for his Olympic heat.
On Friday, Djibo Issaka will compete in an all-African F final against Cameroon’s Paul Etia Ndoumbe and Aymen Mejri that will decide who finishes 31st, 32nd and 33rd in the regatta.
Whatever happens, London 2012 has been an eye-opening experience for the father of two, who earns a living as a gardener and swimming pool cleaner.
”I really enjoyed the opening ceremony because I saw things I had never seen before, like the fireworks,” he said.
”I am very happy [with all the support I have received] because they encourage me and that helps me finish the race.
”I don’t have any technique. I’ve been learning only three months. It is all about courage.
”I’m getting ready for 2016 and I hope to train for it in Niger. Maybe the new boats will be there so I will be able to do it.”