First Published: 2016-07-18

Tunisia's Mellouli optimistic to win one last medal in Rio
Two-time gold medallist will go the Olympics for fifth time in Rio de Janeiro at end of roller coaster swimming career.
Middle East Online

Mellouli is the first swimmer to win Olympic golds in both pool and open water competitions

TUNIS - Tunisia's most decorated sportsman Oussama Mellouli will go the Olympics for the fifth time in Rio de Janeiro at the end of a roller coaster swimming career of gold medals and a drug ban.

A two-time gold medallist and the first African man to win an Olympic swimming gold, Mellouli, 32, said he is "calm" and "optimistic" that he can win one last medal.

"With the Olympics, I'm going to something I know well. For the young ones, it will be different," he said.

"Eat, swim, sleep, repeat -- that's the rhythm of an athlete. You shouldn't think of anything but that."

After competing in Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004, Mellouli won the 1,500 metres title at the 2008 Beijing Games.

He made African history just three months after returning from an 18-month ban after testing positive for a stimulant in late 2006. Mellouli said it was a substance to help stay awake while studying. He lost two world titles because of the ban.

Four years later at the London Olympics, he snatched a bronze in 1,500m.

And despite a virus that left him vomiting in his hotel room just days before the 10-kilometre swimming marathon, he headed to the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park determined to compete.

Under blazing sun, he beat Germany's Thomas Lurz to gold in a time of 1hr 49min 55.1sec.

That made him the first swimmer to win Olympic golds in both pool and open water competitions.

- 'Athletes are dreamers' -

"Ninety-nine percent of athletes are dreamers," he said. "From the moment the dream is in our spirit, we strive for it. For me, it's been like that since I was 16," said Mellouli, who comes from La Marsa on the coast near Tunis.

Mellouli had to think seriously, including in a six month retreat, before launching into this Olympic campaign.

He said he wants to accomplish his Olympic dream for his family, particularly his mother Khadija, and the people who have accompanied him throughout his career.

"In Tunis, Marseille, Font-Romeu, in the United States -- I've had the chance to work with exceptional people who have pushed me to win these prizes," he said.

Despite his previous victories, he has not yet decided whether to compete in the pool or just focus on the marathon -- just the third in the history of the Games.

"The 1,500 metres is three days before the 10 kilometres. Competing could affect my freshness," he said.

Mellouli has mostly trained in California for the last 15 years, but keeps strong ties to Tunisia.

Ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali made much of Mellouli's success, and the swimmer was accused of being close to the regime.

It was a perception Mellouli was keen to shake off when the regime fell in 2011.

Sitting in a hotel on Bourguiba Square where many of Tunisia's early Arab Spring demonstrations took place, he said he saw his victory in London 2012 as his "redemption".

"I was the only really popular athlete under Ben Ali, and I talk about it openly. Winning another gold medal in 2012, for the Tunisian revolution, was a very important moment in my career," he said.

- 'Extraordinary things' -

From the United States, Mellouli follows closely the tortuous progress of Tunisia's young democracy, which has been threatened by a series of jihadist attacks.

"Before, it was our family that used to worry about us when we were away. Now, it's we who are worried for them," he said.

But he added: "Even if there are sacrifices to make, and difficult choices, we're proud of this democracy."

As at the Beijing in 2008, Mellouli will carry the Tunisian flag at the opening ceremony. And when the Games are over, he has ideas for Tunisian sport.

He wants to instill in youth the idea that "if you dream big and you work hard, you can get there."

"Some people say that that's an American or a French slogan, it's not for us in Tunisia, he said.

"But for me, I think Tunisians can do extraordinary things."

 

Pentagon skeptical about Russia's Syria pullout claims

Senior Saudi prince blasts Trump's "opportunistic" Jerusalem move

Kuwait ruler’s son named defence minister

EU accused of complicity in Libya migrant rights violations

Saudi Arabia lifts decades-long ban on cinemas

Israeli sentenced to four years for arson attack on church

Erdogan risks sabotaging fragile relations with Israel

6.2-magnitude earthquake strikes Iran

Two Gazans killed by Israeli ‘strike’, Israel denies claim

French FM accuses Iran of carving out ‘axis’ of influence

Somali journalist killed in front of children

Over 170 dead after South Sudan rival cattle herders clash

Russia begins partial withdrawal from Syria

Russia weary of returning IS jihadists before World Cup, election

EU says Syria war ‘ongoing’ despite Russia pullout

Istanbul nightclub gunman refuses to testify

Integrating Syrians in Turkey carries implications

US opinion views Muslims and Arabs more favourably but political affiliation makes a difference

Iranian conservative protesters say Trump hastening end of Israel

Jordan referred to UN for failing to arrest Sudanese president

Turkey demands life for journalists in coup bid trial

Netanyahu expects EU to follow suit on Jerusalem

Putin orders withdrawal of ‘significant’ amount of troops from Syria

Putin to meet with Sisi in Cairo

GCC at a critical juncture

Houthi rebels tighten grip on Sanaa after Saleh’s assassination

Israel’s Syrian air strikes risk renewing escalation as Iran expands presence in Golan

Qatar to acquire 24 Typhoon fighters from UK

Bahraini civil society group criticised after Israel visit

Israel PM faces renewed pressure in Europe

Palestinian stabs Israeli guard in ‘terrorist’ attack

UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed says US Jerusalem decision could help terrorists

Fateh encourages more protests, refuses to meet Pence

Chinese electric carmaker to open Morocco factory

Iraqi victory over IS remains fragile

Morocco’s renewed ties with South Africa likely to consolidate support for Western Sahara stance

Lebanese security forces fire tear gas at protestors

Syria’s justice system: ‘working without a written law'

Egypt revives controversial desert capital project

Iran sentences fugitive ex-bank chief to jail

Iraq announces 'end of the war against Daesh'

Israeli air strike kills 2 in Gaza

UK foreign minister in Iran to push for Briton's release

Turkey's Erdogan seeks to lead Muslim response on Jerusalem

Iraqi Christians celebrate in town retaken from IS