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Braving deeper waters

Maldivian swimmer delivers a most important message

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Latest: Friday September 22, 2000 01:36 PM


SYDNEY, Australia -- The 50-meter freestyle is the power event in women's swimming. Strapping sprinters like Inge de Bruijn, 24, and Jenny Thompson, 27 -- fully-flowered females who have made the most of their pubescences -- dominate the distance. What, then, was Fariha Fathimath doing on Friday morning, entered in the heats for the 50?

Fariha is 13 years old. She's five feet tall. She weighs 86 pounds. She had only once before swum in an international meet, and that was the decidedly regional 1999 South Asian Games in Kathmandu, which isn't exactly Mission Viejo. Her personal best of 34.66 was more than 10 seconds off de Bruijn's world record, even though it's almost impossible to open up a 10-second lead on anyone over a single length of an Olympic pool.

From Sports Illustrated
• SI Images: Photos from the Games
• Brian Cazeneuve: Hall past past
• Tim Layden: Mo and O can go
• Grant Wahl: Put him in coach
• Alex Wolff: Maldivian swimmer delivers a most important message
• Phil Taylor: Water polo -- Now that's toughness
• John Walters: Show some heart
• Medal Picks: SI's Predictions

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Here's what Fariha was doing at the Aquatic Centre in Olympic Park: She was swimming to save her country.

She is from the Maldives, a handful of islands and atolls flung across an equatorial stretch of the Indian Ocean. If global warming continues at its current rate, oceanographers figure the Maldives will cease to exist in, oh, 50 years. It's our air-conditioning that depletes the ozone layer, which warms the earth, which melts the polar ice caps, which puts a gemlike country like the Maldives in peril.

Swimming isn't a bad skill to have under these circumstances. At the same time, to swim at an Olympics is a way to bring the world's attention to your nation's plight. "We are a low-lying country," says Ali Manik, the chief of mission for the Maldivian delegation in Sydney. "We are one and a half meters above sea level, and some islands are lower than that. The rise of the sea is something we take seriously, but we can't do anything about it. It is the developed countries who can do something about it. Although, when we go abroad, we can talk about it."

Fariha spoke with her stroke. Until a hotel with a pool opened up near the airport in Male, the Maldivian capital, several months ago, her training had been confined to a stretch of the harbor. Nonetheless, her time of 32.36 placed her ahead of five of the 73 other competitors. (She beat out Raksmey Hem of Cambodia, whose task on the morn -- swimming for Cambodia -- sounded, my colleague Rick Reilly noted, like a Spalding Grey novel.) And when Fariha emerged from the pool, she was breathlessly excited. How did she feel? "Good," she said. Then she reconsidered: "Fantastic!" She hadn't just broken her own national record of 34.15. She had Thorpedoed it.

Just before leaving New York City for these Games, I'd dog-paddled through eddies of traffic caused by the United Nations Millennium Summit, where the Maldives' president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, tried to hector the assembled world leaders into paying attention to global warming. I have a hunch that, on Friday, Fariha delivered the same message every bit as effectively.

We can only hope so. It's a long way to Sri Lanka.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Alexander Wolff is in Sydney covering the Games for the magazine and Check back daily to read Wolff's behind-the-scenes reports from Down Under.

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