Olympics: Olympian efforts of a different scale

Mexico's Alexa Moreno competes in the qualifying for the women's Beam event of the Artistic Gymnastics at the Olympic Arena on Aug 7, 2016.
Mexico's Alexa Moreno competes in the qualifying for the women's Beam event of the Artistic Gymnastics at the Olympic Arena on Aug 7, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

If there is one thing the Olympics has taught us, it is that sports brings together the world's best regardless of nationality, race, religion... shape or size.

In shows of courage, pride and international solidarity, two athletes have stolen the limelight at the Rio Olympics with their atypical athletic physique.

The first was Robel Kiros Habte, an Ethiopian 100m freestyle specialist who made his debut at the heats on Tuesday in Brazil bearing an unexpected paunch.

The 24-year-old, who qualified for the Olympics on a wild card, finished half a lap behind his two other rivals - Jhonny Perez Urena of the Dominican Republic and Thibaut Amani Danho of the Ivory Coast. With a time of 1min 4.95sec, Habte is the only one of the 59 swimmers who failed to complete the event in under a minute.

Many netizens have likened him to Eric Moussambani Malonga - or "Eric the Eel" - who represented Equatorial Guinea in the 100m freestyle at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He finished his heat with an astounding 1:52.72, which puts Habte's 1:04.95 in a much better light.

But Habte has taken everything in his stride - for him, the Olympics was less about winning than proving that an Ethiopian could succeed at the Olympics in a sport other than athletics.

According to Reuters, he said that he was "so happy because it is my first competition in the Olympics, so thanks for God.

"I wanted to do something different for my country, that's why I chose swimming," he said. "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.

"It didn't matter where I finished."

But Mexican gymnast Alexa Moreno received a far more brutal attack by keyboard warriors who singled her out for her fuller frame.

Standing at 1.47 metres and 45 kilograms, the sole Mexican gymnast bore a number of unwarranted jibes about her size, despite placing 31st of 61 entrants at the individual all-around qualification on Aug 7. She scored a total of 54.866, and even ranked 12th on the vault.

Yet tweets of her being compared to a cartoon pig and malicious remarks about her weight circulated on the internet right after she made her Olympic debut.

But supporters stamped out the critics and came to her defence, with tweets of praise, encouragement and respect outnumbering the venemous and the vicious.

In fact, 22-year-old Moreno was the first Mexican gymnast to have successfully performed a double-twisting double back tumble on the floor.

The Olympics not only attracts the world's best - it attracts the world's bravest. For these athletes to step up and challenge stereotypes is indeed a laudable Olympian effort in itself.

For more Olympic stories, go to str.sg/olympics