Tunisian swimmer Ahmed Hafnaoui wins Africa's first Olympic gold against all odds

The 18-year-old surprised everyone in the 400m freestyle to win Tunisia's second medal at the Tokyo Olympics
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AFP/ATTILA KISBENEDEK  -   Tunisia's Ahmed Hafnaoui after winning the final of the men's 400m freestyle swimming event during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on 25 July 2021

Tunisia has a new national hero. While the North African country is going through days of political upheaval, a young Tunisian swimmer, Ahmed Ayoub Hafnaoui, won Africa's first gold medal in Tokyo against all odds. All this, moreover, on the same day that his country celebrated Republic Day, the holiday commemorating the fall of the monarchy in 1957.

Hafnaoui swept the 400m freestyle on Sunday to become Tunisia's second Olympic medallist at the Tokyo Olympics, to the surprise of everyone. The 18-year-old swimmer clocked a time of 3 minutes 43.36 seconds to beat the two favourites, Australia's Jack McLoughlin and Kieran Smith of the United States.

The youngster beat his rivals from the worst position in the pool, on the outside lane number eight. He had qualified for the event as the slowest swimmer, however, he erupted on the home straight and managed to overtake all his rivals. "I dedicate this title to all the Tunisian people. They now have a champion", he told his compatriots.

"When I saw the flag of my country being raised and heard the national anthem, tears came to my eyes. I felt so proud". Before the pride came the euphoria. It took Hafnaoui a few seconds to react and realise his victory. As soon as he knew, he burst into jubilation. He shouted, climbed onto the corkboard and hit the water in anger. Completely unhinged, he struggled to realise his achievement.

Standing on the podium at the Aquatic Center and visibly excited, Hafnaoui repeated over and over again "I can't believe it, it's incredible". "I felt better in the water this morning than yesterday and that's it. I'm the Olympic champion now," he declared afterwards. The novice swimmer competed with mediocre results at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games and the 2019 World Championships, when he revealed to Tunisian media outlet La Presse that he was aiming to win his first medal at the Paris 2024 Olympics. Even he didn't count on winning.

El nadador tunecino Oussama Mellouli
PHOTO/REUTERS - Tunisian swimmer Oussama Mellouli

Hafnaoui, a complete unknown to the general public, came within two seconds of the continental record set by his compatriot and double Olympic swimming champion, Oussama Mellouli.  "He is a legend. I want to be like him one day," said the new champion. This victory could be followed by another, as the young swimmer will compete in the 800m freestyle on Tuesday.

The teenager takes over from his idol Mellouli. The 37-year-old veteran swimmer, also present in Tokyo, dedicated a few words to him before travelling to the Japanese capital. "I'm happy to pass the torch to him. Ayoub has had a difficult time. He had to give up his studies in order to succeed in swimming. He has taken a risk with his future. I hope he will strike a balance between his financial and psychological well-being". 

The son of basketball player and Tunisian national team member Mohamed Hafnaoui, the young man chose swimming thanks to his father. "He told me to try swimming because it's good for your health and for strengthening your body," he explained. He is now the star of one of Tunisia's greatest sporting achievements and has a promising career ahead of him.

Earlier, wrestler Mohamed Khalil Jendoubi had taken silver in the men's 58kg taekwondo category. Jendoubi opened the medal tally for Tunisia and the rest of the continent in the competition after qualifying for the final against Italian taekwondist Vito Dell'Aquila. With 15 seconds remaining and the score tied at 10-all, his opponent scored the deciding point.

Javad Foroughi, de Irán,  después de ganar la medalla de oro en la pistola de aire masculino de 10 metros en el campo de tiro de Asaka en los Juegos Olímpicos de Verano 2020, el sábado 24 de julio de 2021, en Tokio, Japón
AP/ALEX BRANDON - Javad Foroughi of Iran after winning the gold medal in the men's 10m air pistol at the Asaka shooting range at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Saturday, July 24, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan
Iran opens the locker

Iran's Javad Foroughi set an Olympic record in the 10m air pistol category. The 41-year-old recorded a score of 244.8 points to beat Serbia's Damir Mikec at the Asaka shooting range and claim the Asian country's first medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

Persian taekwondist Kimia Alizadeh was another of the big surprises of the Olympics. Alizadeh, a dissident of the Iranian regime and part of the Refugee Olympic Team, fell just short of winning the first medal for her team in the women's 57kg taekwondo event. The fighter was at a high level after three years out of competition and won her first three bouts to reach the semi-finals, where she was defeated by Russia's Tatiana Minina. In the bronze medal match, Alizadeh lost again, this time to Turkey's Kübra İlgün.

The exile group, created in 2016 to enable victims of political persecution and conflict to participate in the Olympics, has yet to win a medal. The 21-year-old wrestler was on the verge of breaking into the team's Olympic locker, but Alizadeh won bronze at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the age of 18. It was the first medal for an Iranian woman in history.

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AFP/JAVIER SORIANO - Britain Jade Jones (blue) and Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin (red) of the Olympic refugee team compete in the -57kg women's taekwondo knockout round match during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Makuhari Messe Hall in Tokyo on July 25, 2021

The athlete fled her home country in January 2020 to Germany after speaking out against the oppression of women in Iran. She also revealed that athletes were treated as propaganda "tools" of the regime. Since then, the Iranian Taekwondo Association has tried to boycott Alizadeh's career. 

For this reason, Iran banned her from representing another country at the Olympics, although she was eventually accepted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), a body that allows her to compete at the highest level until she finds a new destination. She says, however, that she will remain a child of Iran wherever she goes.