HEROES come in all shapes and sizes, colours and creeds, some more successful than others. As Eric Moussambani splashed his way down the Olympic pool in Sydney he took his place in sporting history.

He proved the Olympics is the place for spectacular performances - even if his was spectacularly bad.

Eric swam like a fish, unfortunately one which was floundering on the shore. Arms flailing, water splashing, crowd cheering, the young man from Equatorial Guinea cut a manic figure as he competed against himself - and nearly lost.

His two fellow wild card entries, from Nigeria and Tajikstan, sat on the side, disqualified for jumping the start in the qualifying heats of the 100m freestyle.

So "Eric the Eel" swam alone, missing the Olympic record set by Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband of 47.84 seconds by 64 seconds.

The 22-year-old only learnt to swim nine months ago in the crocodile-infested rivers of his West African homeland and he must have felt lonely - he normally takes a friend along to keep sharks at bay.

Lifeguards were on hand during the last 50m as it looked at one point like he was going to drown. His friends also later admitted that he had never swum so far without taking a breather.

Yet his achievement eclipses many of the real sporting landmarks and, for some, will be the lingering memory of the 2000 Games.

The fact he is so uncompetitive is being condemned in some quarters for demeaning the competition and the efforts of real athletes who have trained so hard for four years.

Eric and others were able to take part in the Olympiad thanks to the wild card system which allows Third World countries to compete without meeting the stringent qualifying times.

Some athletes resent this, but the system actually fits in with the creed of the Olympics which says: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."

In some ways it is fair to allow underprivileged nations to compete and, as the African long distance runners have shown over the years, it can throw up some surprising natural talents.

Sports psychologist at the University of Northumbria, Tom Fawcett, who has worked with three British Olympic teams, says it is an inconsistency of International Olympic Committee policy. "On the one hand you have a world stage for the world's best athletes, on the other Third World athletes who have been set different goal posts. It may make it entertaining, a circus spectacle, but it must be frustrating for the athletes trying to focus on winning and achieving world records. I am not sure they have got the balance right."

The Games also throws up huge disparities in preparation, training, diet and equipment, areas in which Britain, let alone the Third World, cannot hope to compete.

Top swimmers, for instance, are sheathed in hi-tech "sharkskin" while the poorer competitors sport trunks.

Speedo has spent the past four years developing a revolutionary new body suit that can improve swim times by up to three per cent.

Fastskin uses the very latest modern technology to reduce drag and increase thrust. Speedo claims leading international swimmers have seen a 7.5 per cent reduction in glide time contributing to the estimate of up to a three per cent improvement overall.

The key to Fastskin is the way it mimics shark skin. The shark's body shape is not very hydrodynamic which should make it slow in the water. But over millions of years nature has evolved a series of tiny ridges on the skin that efficiently manoeuvre water over the body to create its devastating pace.

The suit exactly matches the contours of the swimmer's body, is built to co-ordinate the swimmer's muscles and the seams provide tendon-like tension.

Nike, too, spends millions developing equipment. World champion runner American Michael Johnson has had running spikes made especially for him which contain strands of pure go-faster gold.

The aerodynamic running suits the sprinters will wear have been tested in wind tunnels, proved to reduce drag and even keep muscles at the correct temperature for optimum performance.

At this level of competition, the value of special equipment is questionable. When hundredths of one second separate first from fifth, the kit might give athletes the physical edge. Knowing they are wearing the best gear also has a psychological effect.

"The suits do reduce drag but they also give the athletes much more confidence," Mr Fawcett says. "It will be interesting to see how many swimmers who broke records were wearing suits."

But much more important than the physical or technical advantages, he feels, is the "mental edge".

"It's the mental edge which gets you the medals," he says. "When the athletes arrive they are in peak physical condition. All they have to do is keep their brains in the fridge.

"I have worked on emotional control with badminton player Jo Goode. She has had her heart set on an Olympic gold for eight years and will be devastated at being knocked out. Top athletes have an inner drive where the thought of defeat is just sickening. They would rather lose limbs and come out winners than walk off without the trophy."

Britain's swimming team has been off the pace and other competitors in the British team failed to achieve their pre-Games promise. "Yet our cyclists have done superbly. We have to analyse why they got it right," says Mr Fawcett.

The classic psychological case is the British rowers, the coxless four, which until recently have been unbeatable. A shock defeat in the run-up to the Olympics now seems to have spurred them on and they are posting winning qualifying times. "They've got over their embarrassment and they are up again," says Mr Fawcett, who is doing a PhD in mental toughness. "You would not bet big money against them. What is up top makes the difference.

"Athletes are the most temperamental, insensitive and self-centred people around, they are just awful to be with. If it does go wrong they can fall apart."

There is a mindset for winning and a mindset for accepting second and sports psychologists are needed to work on their mental edge, their self belief, to imbue that winning feeling and pick the fragile athletes up when they are down.

It's an issue long recognised by the Americans, which is why each athlete in the squad has a personal analyst.

Unfortunately, the whole of the British team doesn't have one sports psychologist in Sydney, which could leave our athletes floundering as badly as Eric.