A teen sports idol for a troubled Tunisia

A stunning gold-medal win for an underdog swimmer at the Olympics may help remind his country of how individuals can inspire change.

Fans and relatives welcome Tunisia's Ahmed Hafnaoui, who won the Olympic swimming gold medal in the men's 400m freestyle, upon his arrival home in Tunis July 31.

Can a sports hero change society? Tunisia is about to find out. On July 31, the North African nation welcomed home an 18-year-old swimmer, Ahmed Ayoub Hafnaoui, who stunned the world at the Tokyo Olympics by winning the 400-meter freestyle.

To many Tunisians, his victory – which came the same day that President Kais Saied suspended parliament and took full powers – was a reminder of the ability of the individual to lift a country out of passivity and fatalism.

“Thank you for this ray of hope in the middle of our dark night,” wrote one Tunisian on Twitter. In the Leaders publication, one commentator wrote, “This poor Tunisia, this miserable Tunisia ... fights with dignity through its young people, its brave sports soldiers.”

Eya Jrad, a teacher of security studies at the Mediterranean School of Business, told The Washington Post that the gold-medal win by Ayoub (as he is called) is about youth reclaiming their space. “Right now,” she said, “we don’t have anything ... and people just want to see they actually can make it from nothing.”

His victory in swimming’s premier event was all the more astounding because Mr. Hafnaoui barely made it to the finals. He qualified by only 14-hundredths of a second and was forced to swim in lane eight where the waves of competitors can slow you down. Yet he was able to knock almost three seconds off his personal best time.

How did this underdog do it? “It was hard work,” he said as he dedicated his gold medal to all the Tunisian people.

If the reactions to his resilience ring a bell, it is because Tunisia set a famous example for how an individual can make a difference. In December 2010, a young fruit vendor who had been abused by police stood up for his rights and sacrificed his own life, triggering a democratic revolution in Tunisia that felled a dictator and sparked protests across the Middle East. 

The 2011 Arab Spring was ignited with the single act of an individual. While rulers in much of the region still treat people more as subjects than as citizens, Tunisia’s ongoing struggles can still provide inspiration. Mr. Hafnaoui’s “hard work” in winning a gold was more than a momentary distraction for a country in the grips of COVID-19 and a setback to its democracy. It showed how individual Tunisians can choose a better image of themselves, relying on an inner autonomy that overcomes outward adversity.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to A teen sports idol for a troubled Tunisia
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today