Suriname – a country so small, you may not have realized it was a country (to paraphrase John Oliver).
With a population of about 570,000 people, Suriname is the smallest country in South American, just north of South America’s largest country, Brazil. Since forming a national olympic committee, Suriname has sent small teams to the Olympics since 1960, although never forming a team larger than 7.
In 1988, Anthony Nesty was a 20-year-old swimmer, was one of six to represent Suriname at the Seoul Olympics. And represent he did!
Not only was Nesty the first ever Surinamese to place in the finals of an Olympic competition – the 100-meter butterfly – he took gold in a surprising finish. Watching this video clip from an American broadcast, the announcer mentions the American Matt Biondi who led the entire race, as well as Michael Gross of Germany and Jon Sieben of Australia – all proven champions. The only time Nesty’s name is mentioned is after the finish.
ANNOUNCER: They now have 10 meters to swim, Matt Biondi going for the gold. Jon Siebens coming hard on the outside. But Biondi looks like he’s going to take it to the wall. And they get….NESTY! Nesty finally takes in lane 3 at the very last moment!
Nesty is 5ft 11 in (1.8 meters) tall, and is significantly shorter than the 6ft 7 (2 meters) Biondi. In very real terms, Biondi has a 8 inch lead on Nesty at the start of every race. But at the finish of this finals, Biondi lost by the barest of margins because he glided in, instead of stroking in. “I was halfway between a stroke and trying to kick in and I decided to kick in,” said Biondi. “If I had to stroke, I might have touched with my nose.”
Nesty was born in Trinidad in 1967. His family moved to Suriname, about a thousand miles southeast, to Paramaribo, Suriname. While Nesty enjoyed soccer, his father encouraged his son to swim. Clearly his father saw something in his son’s stroke, but Suriname, a country about the size of Georgia, USA primarily covered in rain forests, was not rich in swimming pools. In fact there was only one 50-meter pool in the country.
Where he could, Nesty trained and got stronger, strong enough to be named one of only two to represent Suriname at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Outclassed, the 16-year old finished in 21st place in the 100-meter butterfly, but as is explained in this article, he got a taste of the Olympics and wanted more, promising himself “to be more competitive next time around.” That commitment led to his acceptance at the Bolles Prep School in Florida, where world-class swimmers come to train and develop. Nesty developed so quickly he ended up breaking the prep school’s record for the 100-meter butterfly, set by Pablo Morales, who had a gold and two silvers, including one in the butterfly, at the 1984 Games.
He told the press in 1987 that he was not very well known in Suriname as he was now training in the United States.
“I’m proud, I guess,” says Nesty, who had the world’s 10th fastest time in the 100-meter freestyle, finishing 10th in the trials. He possibly has more fans in the United States than in Surname, a small nation in northern South America. “They respect me there, but I haven’t been there for over a year,” he said. “Suriname has a lot of military coups and political things. My dad told me if I stayed there much longer wouldn’t have much of a swimming career.”
But when Nesty returned from Seoul, Korea to Paramaribo, Suriname, he returned a conquering hero, greeted by 20,000 people at the airport and mobbed in the streets. His face was placed on commemorative stamps, coins and banknotes. And the indoor national stadium was named in his honor.
To this day, Nesty, with his gold in the 100-meter butterfly at the Seoul Olympics, as well as a bronze at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, remains the sole Olympic medalist from Suriname.