Robel Kiros Habte of Ethiopia was ranked 59th out of 59 competitors—in other words, dead last—in the preliminary heats of the men's 100-meter freestyle at the Rio Games on Tuesday, August 9.
No one else took more than a minute to finish the race—except for Habte, who clocked in at 1:04.95 at Rio's Olympic Aquatics Stadium.
Despite the 24-year-old Habte's less-than-stellar performance, he got a huge cheer from the Brazilian crowd for his effort.
Habte later told Reuters that he wasn't bothered about finishing last. "I wanted to do something different for my country, that’s why I chose swimming. Everybody, every day you wake up in Ethiopia, you run. Not swimming. But I didn’t want to run, I wanted to be a swimmer," he explained.
He also added, "I am so happy because it is my first competition in the Olympics."
Due to his cheerful demeanor, Habte gained some fans despite the fact that critics had pointed out that he was out of shape and stood out like a sore thumb among the athletes with excellent physiques. In fact, he was given the nickname "Robel the Whale."
The UK's Evening Standard noted that Habte was being compared to swimmer Eric Moussambani, who represented Equatorial Guinea in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Nicknamed "Eric the Eel," Moussambani had taken double the time of his rivals to finish the 100-meter freestyle. He, however, still set a personal best.
Then again, some people—Ethiopians, in particular—have already pointed out that Habte is not exactly an adorable underdog.
"Many folks believe that he made the Games because his father is rumored to be the president of the Ethiopian swimming federation," reports Chuck Schilken in the Los Angeles Times.
Schilken noted, though, that "Reuters said Habte got the Olympics gig because of a special invitation from world body Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA) for athletes from under-represented countries."
But never mind what Reuters said, as Ethiopians on Twitter weighed in on the matter.
These allegations are unfortunate—but they can't completely be ignored either. After all, the Olympic Games are meant to celebrate athletic excellence and sportsmanship. It's not supposed to just be a venue for people of privilege to amuse themselves.