Anthony Nesty, now a coach in Florida, who set the ball rolling 33 years ago, should take a bow.


By Kunal Pradhan, New Delhi

UPDATED ON JUL 25, 2021 09:26 PM IST

Anthony Nesty, the youngest of five children, emigrated from Trinidad to Suriname with his family when he was seven months old. He was six when he started swimming. The smallest country in South America was in turmoil at the time as a Dutch colony striving for independence, and after achieving that in 1975, was destined for more turmoil when Sergeant-Major Desi Bouterse took control in the 1980 military coup. By 1988, the nation was embroiled in civil war.

Meanwhile, at the Seoul Olympics, American Matt Biondi was attempting to emulate Mark Spitz’s record of seven golds at a single Games, and the world believed he had a realistic shot at it.

No one had accounted for Anthony Nesty. A rank outsider from a country they could barely place on the map, he pulled off the most stunning swimming upset in Olympic history by beating Biondi to a silver in the 100m butterfly by one-hundredth of a second. Biondi ended the Games with five golds; Nesty as a spark that lit a million flames in several forgotten corners of the world.

One of them was Oussama Mellouli, only four years old at the time. He was born on the outskirts of Tunis barely a month after the “bread riots” that eventually led to the ascendency of Ben Ali as Tunisia’s president. Mellouli’s passion for swimming was encouraged as an indulgence by his mother — the country’s sporting success was restricted to boxing and long-distance running.

Mellouli knew it should be impossible for a Tunisian to win an Olympic medal in swimming. But there was that man from Suriname who had done it; so why not him?

To train, he moved to France as a teenager, and then to California. And at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Mellouli stunned Australian Grant Hackett, who was going for his third straight title, to win the 1500m freestyle gold – the first in swimming by an African male.

Unbeknownst to Mellouli (he is still active, by the way, and has even qualified for the Tokyo Games), the spark that he lit by making swimming mainstream across the Arab world, particularly Tunisia, would create another Olympic fable on Sunday morning.

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Ahmed Hafnaoui, 18, came to the Tokyo Olympics as a surprise package out of Africa — active on the junior circuit for the past three years, his Wikipedia page still a stub. He was the slowest qualifier for Sunday’s 400m freestyle final, and no one was really paying attention to him in Lane 8 in a race that was meant to set the mood of the swim competition with a battle between Australia’s Jack McLoughlin and American Kieran Smith.

In an event that runs for eight lengths, allowing enough time for athletes to set the pace or catch up, the commentators first noticed Hafnaoui at the 100m split when he was in third place. The mentions, casual to begin with, became slightly more prominent when he was in 2nd place at the 200m mark, and when he remained there at the 300m split, and then even at 350m. But he was still expected to fall apart in the final 50m with McLoughlin ahead and Smith trying to catch up.

It was only in the last 10m that everyone – the commentators, the stadium, the others in the pool, and perhaps Hafnaoui himself – realised that he was going to win, and a new Olympic outsider story was being written.

On Sunday, it was Hafnaoui’s turn to exemplify what the Olympics are all about, and how athletes from unexpected places, with almost fictional back stories, suddenly step up and shine. These champions also bring their nations, and their people, into the spotlight with them. And it is in these moments, that the idea of the Olympics – not as an arena to compare medal hauls in, but as a forum to bring the entire world together, and to get to know more about its farthest corners – becomes truly clear.

Hafnaoui was still in awe of his hero Mellouli after the gold. “Oussama is a legend. I wish I could become like him,” he said, as he set off a wave of celebrations across his country.

Anthony Nesty, now a coach in Florida, who set the ball rolling 33 years ago, should take a bow.