On the day Tunisians marked the moment the monarchy was abolished in 1957, they will have permitted themselves to at least celebrate an Olympic king after a sensational performance in Tokyo from swimmer Ahmed Hafnaoui.
The 18-year-old produced a devastating late burst way out in lane eight yesterday — Republic Day in Tunisia — to win the 400 metres freestyle in 3min 43.36sec, overhauling Australian Jack McLoughlin. “When I saw the flag of my country being raised and I heard the national anthem I had tears in my eyes,” he said afterwards. “I felt so proud. I dedicate this title to all the Tunisian people. You have a champion now!”
His gold, combined with compatriot Ons Jabeur’s eye-catching run to the Wimbledon women’s quarter-finals, has allowed sport to provide a welcome distraction for the hard-pressed Tunisian people this summer.
There could be more to come as Hafnaoui bids to add the 800m freestyle title on Tuesday — and his idol, double Olympic swimming champion Oussama Mellouli, will attempt to win a third career gold when he tackles the 10 kilometres open water event at the grand old age of 37 on August 5.
Jabeur may have lost her first-round match at the Olympics yesterday — perhaps her Wimbledon exertions took their toll — but she has done her bit off the court too. Tunisia is facing a record number of coronavirus contaminations with public hospitals facing an unprecedented influx of patients.
Jabeur announced a fortnight ago she was auctioning one of her racquets to help Tunisian hospitals fight Covid-19. Jabeur, who will add a personal donation to the amount collected during the sale, said the money raised would be used to buy “drugs and medical equipment”.
Jabeur’s long-term goal is for her exploits to inspire more Arabic women, especially North African, to take up tennis. The success of Hafnaoui, eight years younger than Jabeur, appeared to be as much of a surprise to him as to his rivals and most of those watching. His Tunis-based coach Jabrane Touili danced up and down the rows of empty seats left empty because of the coronavirus-related ban on spectators.
“I train alone with my coaches, it is difficult but the result speaks for itself,” Hafnaoui said. The teenager’s basketball player father inspired him to take up swimming. “He told me to try my hand at swimming because it is good for one’s health and for building up the body,” he said.
“With time I began to gain in confidence. These last two years I began to win races at Arab and African meetings and further afield like at the French championships.”
Little wonder then that Hafnaoui said his thoughts turned to his parents as he stood on the medal podium. Before the Games began, Mellouli praised his younger compatriot but there were words of warning for him too — which ring ever more pertinently now.
“I am happy to pass the torch to him,” he said in July. “Ayoub (Hafnaoui’s middle name) has had some difficult times. He had to give up his studies so he could succeed in swimming. He took a risk as regards his future. I hope he will strike a balance between his financial and psychological welfare.”
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