The shores of Tunisia welcome its champion. Amid the undulant rhythms of an elated youth, the waves echo their joys. The pride of a nation. Following his victory at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, 18-year-old swimmer Ahmed Ayoub Hafnaoui has returned home with his gold medal. “The people inspired me,” he says, his voice heavy with assertion. With an event so permeated by communal pride, there is a sense of humility in the journey of an Olympian; their hopes never drifting far from those of their people.
“When I saw the flag of my country being raised, tears came to my eyes,” reflects Hafnaoui on the moments following his win. It’s a success story in its purest form. He completed the 400m freestyle swimming final with a time of 3:43.36, while being the youngest swimmer, facing the outside lane – the least advantageous position in the pool – and initially qualifying as the slowest. He remained motivated throughout, reportedly feeling “better in the water that morning.”
When asked of his thought process before the final race, he recalls, “I just thought, why not win a gold medal? And then I touched the wall first.” It was a moment that moved many, and even surprised Hafnaoui himself. Australian Jack McLoughlin claimed silver and US swimmer Kieran Smith took home bronze. It took Hafnaoui a few seconds to realize his own victory but as reality struck, he burst into jubilation, echoed around the world.
Though his family was not present at the Games due to Covid-19 restrictions, their animated reactions were recorded on video; a clip of which has since gone viral. “To see my family on the internet and to hear the national anthem… Those feelings keep me dreaming,” Hafnaoui shares. His father, Mohamed Hafnaoui, was particularly instrumental in the development of this journey. He was cheering when Hafnaoui finished eighth at the 2018 Summer Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires. A former professional basketball player on the Tunisian national team, his decision to register his son in the national swimming program at the age of six, coupled with his advice over the years, remain dear to the Olympian. “My father helped me to get better in the pool. He gave me advice and the power to keep pushing during the hard seasons. My whole family has always encouraged me in everything I do.”
To many Tunisians, Hafnaoui’s victory – which fell on July 25, Tunisia’s Republic Day – was a reminder of the ability of the individual to uplift a country. “Hafnaoui’s win had thrilled Tunisia,” said the country’s ambassador to Japan, Mohamed Elloumi, at the time. Upon his return home, the young swimmer was received at Tunis-Carthage international airport by his family, as well as the acting minister of youth, sports, and professional integration, Sihem Ayadi, the chairman of Espérance Sportive de Tunis, Hamdi Meddeb, and officials from the Tunisian National Olympic Committee.
As a personification of hope, Hafnaoui’s achievements have become those of his nation – a discourse that is not lost on him. “People’s happiness becomes your own happiness,” he states. His was Tunisia’s first Olympic medal in Japan and only its fifth gold medal since the country started to compete, at the 1960 Games in Rome. Fellow swimmer and two-time gold medalist Oussama Mellouli sent Hafnaoui a good luck message before the race. After dedicating his medal to his country, Hafnaoui expressed his solidarity towards the people of Palestine, affirming, “This is my identity – and I am proud to be an Arab athlete. I want to have more achievements for my country and the whole Arab world.” He finished with “May Allah bless the Palestinian people. Ameen.”
Willed into existence despite a global pandemic, relentless delays, and restrictions, this year’s Olympic Games called for even more perseverance. It was also one where mental health was discussed just as much as the physical. “It was hard during the pandemic. Especially because of the closing down of pools,” Hafnaoui reflects. “But we kept on working and that was the result. We are satisfied.” What remains certain is his unwavering work ethic, honed under the guidance of his coach, Jobrane Touili. With Paris 2024 beckoning, Hafnaoui also has his sights set on a world record. “It takes a lot of time and work. Because that’s the price of success. Nothing comes on its own. You have to push yourself to the hardest level – to get better day after day.”
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Video cinematography and editing: Achref Bettaieb
Creative direction: Saif Mahdhi
Style: Amine Jreissati
Creative production: Laura Prior