Ous Mellouli had an ambitious schedule of 15 events over 6 days at the 2011 Pan Arab Games in Doha, Qatar. The schedule became even more ambitious when it was revealed that he had suffered a rib injury that could have rightfully kept him out of the Games.
In another year, maybe. But not this year, not with a new Tunisia who elected a new President for the first time in 24 years; who was looking for a source to unify the nation. To think that sports are too trivially incapable of such a feat after such a bloody revolution would be to sell short the most basic human needs to unite behind a common cause, just as the people of his country did to overthrow a dictator. This was reaffirmed by the scores of Tunisians who took to social media to reaffirm the significance of the event, and to make a show to the rest of the Arab World that Tunisia is stronger than ever with their newfound freedoms. Poetically, it was these same social media outlets where Tunisian citizen-journalists first ignited the revolt, and it is now to where they turn to ignite unity.
Further proof came when the Twittersphere was buzzing about Mellouli donning a pro-Palestine shirt at one point during the meet.
Not only did Mellouli swim at the Pan Arab Games, but he held firm on his committment of 15 events and scored 14 gold medals (with the only falter being a controversial DQ in the prelims of the 100 breaststroke.
After taking 5 in the first two days of the meet, Mellouli efforts actually picked up in the final stretch.
Monday (day 3 of the meet), Mellouli took the 50 free in 23.03 and the 200 back in 2:02.67. Given that those events are way outside of his wheelhouse, they’re impressive wins.
Tuesday would be his busiest day of the meet, as he won the 50 fly (25.04), the 400 free (3:54.16), and the 100 back (55.92) individually. He would also anchor Tunisia’s 400 free relay in 49.00 to a 3:23.87 victory. This was the closest event he swam the whole meet, after having to come from 4th-place to overtake Algeria by two-tenths in the final strokes.
The next day, the 100 free (49.55) and 200 IM (1:59.99) would be his, with that 200 IM as one of his better performances of a competition where he was more worried about medals than times.
On Thursday’s closing day of competition, Mellouli would take the 200 breast in 2:16.53 first. He would then save his best event for lest and cap off a sweep of the meet’s freestyle events with a win in the 1500 in 15:33.05. He will attempt in London to win that event back-to-back, which would continue a 20-year streak of repeat champions.
But what’s even more striking than Mellouli’s successes is the way that the entire Tunisian team has risen to the occassion. They earned a total of 40 medals at the meet, nine more than the runners-up Egypt, including 17 gold. That means that despite his impressive haul, he actually earned only about a third of his country’s swimming medals. Other winners included Wassim Elloumi in the 50 breast (28.77) and the 100 breast (1:02.47).
Other standouts of the meet were recent Virginia grad (who still is training in Charlottesville) Katya Bachrouche. She was born in Michigan but has chosen to represent Lebanon, where her father is from, in the next Olympics. She swept the 200 through 800 freestyles, and tacked on a win in the 200 IM for good measure. The 400 and the 800 were her bests times, with marks of 4:15.24 and 8:44.50, respectively.
One of the more versatile women in the field is Morocco’s Sara el Bekri. Among her 5 event victories, she smashed the National Record in the 400 IM in 4:48.04 (27 seconds better than the old mark). So splendid was that swim, that it actually broke Morocco’s previous National Record in the 400 Medley Relay (though, at this meet they lowered that to a respectable 4:22.21). She also scored runner-up finishes in each of the 4 events that were won by Bachrouche, plus a relay silver, to total 10 total medals.
Bekri has significance as one of the pioneers of modern Moroccan swimming. That country is beginning to get involved in the international scene, including hosting the FINA Jr. World Championships.
Arabian Swimming is on the rise. While the cultural infrastructure might never exist to rival powers like the United States and Europeans, I think that the region is probably within a decade of becoming internationally relevant with multiple swimmers earning World-and-Olympic Championship times, especially with the money that is being poured into the sport from places like the UAE. At the very least, it’s a good region for colleges to look at beginning to dip-in to for under-the-radar talent.
All together, this was an exciting and emotional week in Qatar. Mellouli’s story was not the only one in the 21-nation field, where several other nations are going through similar ordeals. Syria was actually forced to withdraw. Egypt and Iraq are also going through similar local strife. Yemen and Palestien. If there were ever a sporting event that was significant beyond the boundries of the courts, fields, and pools, it was this one.