Kenki Sato © Gallo Images

Horse-riding monk among unusual athletes at London

A Buddhist monk on horseback, a friendly but slow rower from Niger, a sinewy judoka from the world's third-smallest country and a German handball buff discovered by e-mail: unusual athletes are not hard to find at the London Olympics.

They may not rise to the level of Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards - the self-funded British ski jumper who flopped at the 1988 Olympics, but became a worldwide media darling.

There are, however, people with stories matching that of Eric Moussamnabi, the Equatorial Guinean swimmer who viewers feared would drown during an exhausted 100 metres freestyle performance in the Sydney 2000 Games.

Athletes from all over the world are living by the Olympic motto of "being there is everything."

One of the most unusual is eventing rider Kenki Sato, who carried forward a more than 400-year-old tradition in his family by being schooled to be a monk when he was young.

"He is the 26th in his family," said German double gold medalist Michael Jung, with whom the Japanese has been training for 11 months.

An Olympic medal has not been in the cards for the 28-year-old Sato, but that doesn't bother him. His wish was for Jung to win.

"I admire him," Sato said.

Christopher Mohr made it to the Olympics thanks to an e-mail he sent after the British Handball Association went on a worldwide hunt for new players with English roots after London was chosen to host the Olympics in 2005.

Thanks to the Sporting Giants project, the former amateur handball player who grew up in Germany - his mother is Scottish and his father German -made the switch to Britain.

Mohr took his team's resounding 15-44 defeat to France in his stride, noting that they only fell short by 29 goals.

"Six years ago, it would have been 70," he quipped.

One of the athletes cheered along like an Olympic winner was Hamadou Djibo Issaka.

As the 36-year-old rower from Niger approached the finishing line, 25 000 viewers on the shores of Dorney Lake rose to their feet and applauded enthusiastically - despite the fact that he was coming in last, more than 1:30 minutes behind the winner of his heat.

Issaka decided to try rowing after seeing it on television. Asked whether he is scared of capsizing, he said: "No problem, I can swim."

His defeat in London did little to quash his ambition.

"I am planning my start for Rio," Issaka said, referring to the 2016 Olympics.

Jenly Tegu Wini did not fare much better in the British capital. The weightlifter from the south-west Pacific's Solomon Islands came in second in the Oceania championship, but she had no chance against the world's top athletes.

Wini placed last by lifting 160 kilogrammes in the 58kg category. By comparison, Olympic winner Li Xueying managed 246 kg.

Judoka Sled Dowabobo's home country is even smaller than the Solomon Islands. Nauru, an island with 10 000 inhabitants that lies some 2 500 kilometres north-east of Australia, is the world's third-smallest country after the Vatican and Monaco.

Dowabobo works in construction, training in the evenings with two friends who have black belts. His Olympic appearance was short and painless, lasting for about one minute.

Fellow judoka Jennifer Anson from Palau made it even shorter: she was done after 46 seconds.

"When I was out there, everything blacked out in my head," she said later. "I wanted to be defensive, but I wanted to be offensive at the same time. But I was down on the mat."

With his 71 years, Hiroshi Hoketsu is the oldest athlete in London. The Japanese dressage rider said he is driven by the fact that he is still progressively bettering himself.

His first Olympics were the 1964 Games in Tokyo, in which he participated as a show jumper.

It remains to be seen whether Hoketsu will break the record for the oldest Olympic sportsman - Swedish shooter Oscar Swahn was 72 years and 10 months old when he competed in the 1920 Antwerp Games.

Should it not work, the spry retiree has a good excuse.

"My horse is now 15 and would be too old for Rio," he said.


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