The Olympics are a time to celebrate athletes, tap into our patriotism, and enjoy the surprises that are bound to happen. One of the more shocking surprises of the Tokyo Olympics 2021 came when unknown eighteen-year-old Ahmed Hafnaoui won gold in the men’s 400 freestyle. Consider the context: the teenager barely qualified, positioned in the outer lane, unable to check in on anyone else’s stride except the person immediately next to him, while he faced such swimmers as Kieran Smith of the U.S. and Jack McLoughlin of Australia. Despite the odds, Hafnaoui pulled it off and, in the process, became the feel-good story of the summer.
The Tokyo Olympics finally began after a year-long postponement. It was met with more controversy and less fanfare than usual. In addition to the global pandemic, the games seemed to be mired with the same issues that follow the International Olympic Committee from city to city. Yet, once the competition commenced, inspiration took centre stage, and no one has shined brighter than Ahmed Hafnaoui.
Who is Ahmed Hafnaoui, the only Tunisian besides Ous Mellouli to win a gold medal in swimming? Born in 2002 in Métlaoui, Gafsa, Tunisia, Hafnaoui boasts athletic bloodlines with his father being a former member of Tunisia’s national basketball team. He joined Tunisia’s national swimming team at the age of 12. Previously, he had won three bronze medals and a silver medal at the African Swimming Championships. Prior to this summer, Hafnaoui’s resume was rather pedestrian for a future gold medal winner, highlighted by his placing eighth at the 2018 Youth Olympics and tenth at the 2019 World Juniors.
To refer to Hafnaoui as an afterthought in lane eight would be an understatement. Coming into the competition, he had the slowest lifetime best among the eight other swimmers who he was competing against. His final time was 3:43.36, which almost thrice exceeded his previous best time. It was a very close race with Hafnaoui barely making the win as McLoughlin was less than two-tenths behind Hafnaoui, and Smith lagged behind just slightly with the time of 3:43.94. Hafnaoui’s effort was inspiring, yet he was unable to set the Tunisian swimming record, which still belongs to Mellouli.
Even though he didn’t set a national record, this is still a historic win for Tunisia and the Olympics. A teenager defeating the more recognized and venerated finalists while facing obstacles that would make other swimmers crumble is remarkable. Hafnaoui also won the first African and Arab gold medal at this year’s Olympics.
So, what’s next for Hafnaoui? It doesn’t sound as if he plans to rest on his laurels. Instead, he intends to swim at the collegiate level even though no announcement has been made. And while it’s too early to make it official, Hafnaoui has already announced plans to compete in the next Olympics, which will be held in Paris in 2024. He will have to rise to a new challenge, though, as Tokyo might prove to be his last chance to surprise the world.
Rob Shapiro | Contributing Writer