By Alan Baldwin

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - If some swimmers consider second place to be first of the losers, spare a thought for Ethiopian Olympic debutant Robel Kiros Habte.

By the time the chubby 24-year-old had emerged for air from his opening dive off the blocks in the 100 meters freestyle heats, he was already almost a body length behind and it did not get any better.

The only one of the 59 entrants in the heats not to complete the distance in under a minute, Habte touched the wall with a time 17 seconds slower than Australian pacesetter Kyle Chalmers who clocked 47.90.

Habte's only rivals in the three-man opening heat, Thibaut Danho of the Ivory Coast and Johnny Perez Urena of the Dominican Republic had removed their caps and were leaning on the lane markers as he trailed in more than 12 seconds behind.

The crowd, recognizing a valiant effort, raised a cheer for a man whose land-locked compatriots are considerably better known for long-distance running feats than any exploits involving water.

Habte acknowledged he had swum faster, his personal best being 59.08 seconds, and suggested morning training had left him feeling strained.

But he told Reuters he was delighted anyway.

"I am so happy because it is my first competition in the Olympics," said the Ethiopia-based university student, whose entry for Rio was secured on a special invitation from world body FINA extended to athletes from under-represented countries.

"So thanks for God."

If the performance attracted attention, so too did the swimmer's physique with some social media commentators highlighting his midriff in comparison to more finely-honed denizens of the Olympic pool.

They also recalled, somewhat unfairly, the exploits of Equatorial Guinea's Eric 'the Eel' Moussambani who struggled to complete the 100 meters freestyle at the 2000 Sydney Games.

Compared to Moussambani, who clocked out in one minute 52.72 seconds and more than 50 seconds slower than anyone else, Habte was motoring.

It may be some time before Habte is described as 'sculpted' or 'chiselled', and he has no plans on competing again, but he will always be an Olympian. For him, Rio was never about the winning, only the taking part.

"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."

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis)