Surinam’s unlikely hero
Anthony Nesty was instantly accorded national hero status when, by just one hundredth of a second, he beat American Matt Biondi – the best men’s swimmer at the1988 Games in Seoul – in the 100m butterfly final to become Surinam’s first and only Olympic champion.
A rare talent
Anthony Conrad Nesty was born on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, the last in a family of five, who relocated to Paramaribo in Surinam when he was less than a year old. Despite growing up in a country that had just one 50m pool for a population of 350,000, Nesty started swimming when he was five, and was soon specialising in the butterfly. Having joined the Paramaribo Dolphins club, he made such progress that at 16 he qualified for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. While he only managed to finish 21st, his first Olympic experience convinced him to relocate to the USA in order to step up a level, enrolling at the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida, which is renowned for its sports programme. Taken under the wing of top coach Greg Troy, Nesty embarked on an intensive training regime, which bore fruit in 1987 when he won gold in his favourite event at the Pan American Games in Indianapolis (USA).
Shockwaves in Seoul
In the Olympic pool at Jamsil in 1988, the star of the swimming at the Seoul Games was the USA’s Matt Biondi, who had already won five gold medals by the time he lined up for the 100m butterfly final on 21 September. A sixth gold seemed a certainty, and true to form, the American led going into the turn at 50m, with Nesty back in fourth place. Biondi retained his lead through most of the the home length, but as he approached the wall relaxed into the finish... it was a costly mistake, as Nesty, who had been gaining on him all the time put in a powerful final burst, to touch the wall first and pull off one of the greatest shocks in Olympic swimming history. The scoreboard confirmed that the Surinamese outsider had pipped the favourite in a winning time of 53.00, against Biondi’s 53.01. Champion by a margin of one hundredth of a second, Nesty remains to this day Surinam’s only ever Olympic medallist.
After receiving a scholarship to study and train at the University of Florida, Nesty joined the Florida Gators club and was one of the standout performers at the NCAA Championships. He then embarked on a three-year unbeaten streak in the 100m butterfly, which included victory in the 1989 Pan-Pacific Swimming Championships in Tokyo (JPN) and then the Pan American Games in Havana (CUB) and the World Championship title in Perth (AUS), both in 1991. At Barcelona 1992, he secured yet another podium finish in the 100m, though this time had to settle for bronze.
Nesty’s exploits in Seoul saw him return to a hero’s welcome in Surinam. He was mobbed on the streets of Panamaribo; commemorative stamps and coins were issued bearing his image, as was a new version of the country’s 25 florin banknote. Surinam Airways even renamed one of their planes “Nesty” in his honour, and the government followed suit, choosing to rechristen the national stadium in the country’s capital. In 2008, Nesty, by now pursuing a career as a swimming coach, was invited to be the flag-bearer for the Surinam delegation at the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Games.