Ahmed Hafnaoui celebrates his victory in the men's 400m freestyle
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Ahmed Hafnaoui, an 18-year-old Tunisian swimmer, delivered one of the biggest shocks in Olympic aquatic history on Sunday morning by winning gold in the men’s 400m freestyle just three years after he had finished eighth in the Youth Olympics.
Swimming from lane eight in the final, Hafnaoui had set a personal best to qualify for the final and then improved again by more than two seconds to beat the Australian Jack McLoughlin and American Kieran Smith into second and third place.
Hafnaoui, who became only the fourth Tunisian athlete to ever win Olympic gold, was asked about his huge improvement, saying: "I was surprised at first that I was a finalist and now I am surprised I won a gold medal. It’s unbelievable. I didn’t believe it until I touched the wall and saw my face first."
Asked how he had improved so much between the ages of 15 and 18, Hafnaoui said: "I just worked hard with my coach. When I hit the water, I was just thinking about winning the medal, not the time. I felt great in the water and I went fast and that’s it."
Rebecca Adlington and Mark Foster, who were commentating on the race for the BBC, both admitted that they had never heard of Hafnaoui. "The Olympics brings up surprises and that was a massive surprise," said Foster.
Hafnaoui, who finished just over three seconds outside the world and Olympic records, said that he now intends to study and train in the United States but that the exact location will depend on his exam results.
McLoughlin, who is 26, said he was "a little" surprised by Hafnaoui’s emergence but was magnanimous in defeat. "It’s the Olympic Games and anything can happen," he said.
"Ahmed coming out and doing a huge PB is amazing and credit to him. I wasn’t surprised different people would come into the race. It’s the Olympics, there are so many stories and Ahmed is one of those stories."
Australia's Jack McLoughling won the silver medal
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Tunisia’s only previous Olympic swimming gold medals were won by Oussama Mellouli, who won the 1,500m title in Beijing in 2008 and then the 10km marathon swim in London 2012.
Mellouli had served a retrospective suspension for testing positive for the stimulant adderall leading up to Beijing, which he said had been used to help with an academic paper rather than to aid his swimming.
McLoughlin was asked if he had any concerns about the doping testing procedures in the lead up to these Olympics amid the Covid-19 pandemic. "Back at home we have had rigorous testing, just like normal," he said. "And I think throughout the world it has been the same. Since we have been here we have had so many tests and the Japanese have done a really good job at drug testing everybody."
Mellouli, who is now 37, will also swim in the 10km open water swimming in Tokyo. Hafnaoui will swim again in the 800m freestyle on Tuesday. "I have a great relationship with him (Mellouli)," he said. "He wished me good luck before the race. And I wish him well in the 10k open water. He is a legend. I wish to be like him one day."
Team GB’s Max Litchfield earlier suffered heartbreak in the men’s individual 400m medley, finishing fourth for the second consecutive Olympics and missing out on the bronze medal by just 0.21 sec from Australia’s Brendon Smith.
In a close race, Litchfield had trailed in eighth after the butterfly leg but moved up to sixth after the backstroke and then fifth following the breaststroke before ultimately tying with Hungary’s David Verraszte in fourth.
Litchfield was so upset that he could barely talk and said that it was "harder" than Rio but would make him even more determined. "I’ve done everything I can these last five years, just not quite enough," he said.
Aimee Wilmott also repeated her Rio place in the women’s 400m individual medley, again finishing seventh after qualifying second for the final. Wilmott, who had lost her UK Sport funding in 2018 but still bounced back to win Commonwealth Games gold, will now retire.
The women’s 4x100m freestyle team of Anna Hopkin, Abbie Wood, Lucy Hope and Freya Anderson also finished sixth in a new national record of 3 min 33.96 sec. Australia won gold with a new world record.