Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo on July 25, 2021. Image: Attila Kisbenedek / via Getty Images)

In spite of all of the very real and very reasonable misgivings of going ahead with the Tokyo Olympics, a surprise win by 18-year-old Tunisian Ahmed Hafnaoui in the 400 metre men’s freestyle has been an electric reminder of how uplifting these events can be. And maybe, just maybe, it’s a good thing they went ahead.

Ahmed Hafnaoui takes to the podium at Tokyo. Image: Clive Rose/Getty Images)

To be honest, you couldn’t have scripted a better race. Having qualified eighth in his preliminary race, Hafnaoui entered the finals as an underdog, going up against some tried and tested swimmers. But the Games, like life, can sometimes throw a curveball and to be honest, it’s these moments when things get their most exciting.

From the minute the gun went off, your usual suspects were at the front of the line – Elijah Wellington from Australia, who was a local favourite to place but soon lost steam, falling behind the pack. At the 200m mark, Wellington’s teammate Jack McLoughlin became the man to beat holding first place against American Kieran Smith for the second half of the race.

But out in lane eight Hafnaoui was holding his own within the top three of the pack, consistently edging Smith out of second place from the third lap. But the last 50 metres is where the magic happened, and history made. Hafnaoui powered home, pushing past McLoughlin in the final stretch to take the gold in a thrilling win.

Hafnaoui’s win is the sort of stuff that makes the Olympics worth it – both watching and worth holding during a pandemic. Call me jaded, but it’s often easy for something like the Games, where athletes who benefit from a blend of personal and national wealth, dominate the podium. Australia, China, the USA, Britain – the roster is often the same, just rotating placements.

Sure, it’s nice to see your countrymen rewarded for a life of hard work. But something magical happens when the unexpected occurs. It’s a wake up call, a shaking up of the status quo. It’s also just darned inspiring. With the current state of the world – Australia facing ongoing lockdowns and vaccinations well below the mark they need to be – wins such as Hafnaoui’s offer a sense of hope again.

While I may not have dry-humped a glass rail like Ariarne Titmus’ coach, Dean Boxall, did today after the Aussie took the women’s 400 metre freestyle gold, I definitely got a suspiciously watery eye.