In early January of 2011, Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali greeted a young athlete named Oussama (Ous) Mellouli in Tunis and lauded him as a national hero. Mellouli, then 26, had just finished the world swimming championships in Dubai, where he nailed gold in the 1500-metre freestyle and two silvers.
The Arab Spring, born in Tunisia, was well under way and Ben Ali was playing for a propaganda boost. But the brutal dictator needed a lot more than TV shots of him shaking hands with a swimming star with an easy smile to raises his fortunes. About a week later, on Jan. 11, Ben Ali, his life in danger, stuffed his jet with treasure and fled to Saudi Arabia.
Today, Mellouli is needed again to boost the national psyche. Tunisia has had democratic elections, but the postrevolution economy is in terrible shape and there are fears that little Tunisia's hard-won freedoms – about 300 people died in the uprising – are being eroded under the new Islamist government.
If Mellouli takes another Olympic gold – he won gold in the 1,500 freestyle in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing – Tunisia will go wild with joy. "All Tunisian athletes want to give a spark of joy to the Tunisian people," he said just before the Sette Colli swimming championship in Rome in mid-June, his last competition before the London Games this month (he placed a disappointing third in the 400 freestyle).
"We want our message to be that, even in these tough days, we can be successful in achieving important things on an international level."
There is a lot of pressure on Mellouli to nab gold in London, not just from Tunisians, but for the Arab Spring countries and all of Africa. He can legitimately represent all three.
"If Ous wins gold in London it will bring a much needed sign of hope and optimism to Tunisia and Africa," says Fawzi Rihane, a Tunisian United Nations official who works at the UN in Rome. "It will be a welcome boufée d'oxygène, particularly in these trying times of democratic rule not only in Tunisia, but also in the Arab region and Africa at large."
Mellouli is one of Africa's great medal hopes for London, and the only realistic contender for a swimming medal for all of Africa, a continent far better known for running than pool sports. Mellouli is the only African male athlete in history to earn gold in an individual swimming event (in 2004, in Athens, the South African men took gold in the 4x100 swimming relay).
The question is whether he can capture gold again in London. Indeed, 2011 was a dud year for Mellouli on the medal count and his shoulders are damaged. But the man has overcome formidable obstacles in the past, including a doping scandal and herniated discs, to win titles.
There is nothing flamboyant about Mellouli. He keeps a low profile and is largely ignored by the Western, if not North African, media. He is no Federica Pellegrini, the tattooed Italian swimming goddess who never met a camera she doesn't like, to the point she is happy to remove her clothes for Vanity Fair and other magazines, or Michael Phelps, whose every lap and every transgression (including a drunk driving arrest) is duly recorded in the sporting and gossip press.
Mellouli is considered a "nice" boy. He works hard academically – he is one semester short of a master degree in sports management from the University of Southern California (USC) – doesn't have a girlfriend ("I'm looking") and adores his mother, Khadija, who is his inspiration and manager.
Mellouli was born in Tunisia in 1984 into a middle-class family. Khadija was an elementary school teacher, his father, Hedi, a cop. He has two brothers, one of whom swam competitively when he lived in Montreal, and a sister. "We were a modest family with no tradition of sport whatsoever," he says. "My parents to this day can't swim. But my mother wanted us to know how to. She saw a kid drown one summer and wanted her kids to be able to swim."
So he swam, wherever he could in a country where most of the pools belong to five-star resorts. Spotted as a swimming prodigy by 15, he was shipped off to schools with swimming programs in southern France, then landed a sports scholarship at USC (he lives in Hollywood).
As luck would have it, his coach was Mark Schubert, currently coach of USA Swimming's national team and coach to a steady stream of champions, among them Lindsay Benko, Larsen Jensen and Dara Torres. Back then, Mellouli's specialty was the 400 individual medley.
His Olympics debut came in Sydney in 2000. He was just 16, a kid, trembling with excitement, cocky. In the 400 individual medley, he came off the starting block like a torpedo. "I did the first 100 metres in a Tunisian record, I was so excited," he says. "Then I died and that was it."
He finished 43 out of 45 contenders. Then life went downhill. He tested positive in 2006 for a stimulant known as Adderall, which, he claimed, he used only to get through exams. International swimming officials didn't buy his story and he paid a big price – his 2007 results, including an African record in the 800 freestyle, were nullified.
By the Athens Games four years later, his ban had been lifted and he placed fifth in the same race. "That was a good improvement," he says. "I knew by then I would be a contender for an [Olympic] medal."
That medal came in Beijing. By then, Mellouli had turned into a distance swimmer – he's 6 foot 3 and lean, the ideal body shape for such events – and was at the top of his game. Even then, the 1500 freestyle race was a shocker, because the hands-down favourite was Grant Hackett, the legendary Australian 6-foot-6 swimmer and three-time Olympian gold medal winner, and because Mellouli was suffering from herniated discs. "I thought those were going to be my last Olympics and I felt I might as well go out with a big bang rather than feeling sorry for myself," he says.
His big-bang win was followed by other big bangs. Mellouli went on to win five gold medals in the Mediterranean Games in Italy in 2009. In the world aquatic championship in the same year, he set a world record for the 1500 freestyle, with a time of 14 minutes 37:28 seconds. He killed again in 2010 in Dubai, then came up short in 2011.
Can he win in London? Shoulder injuries are working against him, but he is hopeful he can capture a medal in the 1500 and also in the distance races – the 10 kilometres and the mile – where his toughest competitors will be the Canadians Ryan Cochrane and Richard Weinberger.
"I feel pretty good about London," he says, knowing that he will be cheered on not just by Tunisians, but all of Africa and the Arab Spring countries. That's quite an incentive.