A fashion trend spread among Tunisians at the 12th Arab Games in Doha, Qatar, last month, and it started at the Hamad Aquatic Center. Every time Oussama Mellouli, the Tunisian swimmer who won the 1,500-meter freestyle at the 2008 Olympics, appeared on the pool deck in his i [hearts] free tunisia T-shirt, fans went wild. Said Walid, a fan from Tunisia, "I need this shirt."
The Arab Games are a quadrennial gathering that this year brought 21 nations together. And at a time when nearly every country in the region has felt effects of the Arab Spring revolutions and protests that started in Tunisia a year ago, political statements often made a greater impact than did athletic feats. During the opening ceremonies on Dec. 9, the delegation from Libya—which lost an estimated 30,000 people in the civil war that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi—was led into Khalifa Stadium by rower Mohammed al Rabti, a silver medalist at the '07 Arab Games. But rowing wasn't a sport at these Games, and Rabti can't row anymore; in August he lost his left arm fighting against Gaddafi's soldiers. Both Rabti, and the flag he walked beside—with all three Libyan colors: red, black and green—were potent symbols. Gaddafi used the plain green flag to symbolize his Green Book philosophy. "We paid for these colors with our blood," said a member of the Libyan delegation.
Each day athletes got momentous news from home. On the day Iraqi sprinter Danna Abdulrazzaq won the women's 100 meters, the U.S. declared an end to its war in Iraq. By the time she took silver in the 200, sectarian violence was boiling in Baghdad.
Among the Games' lowlights were nine positive drug tests from gold medalists and the lack of a woman among the 207 Saudi athletes. But there was a special feeling in Doha. "It would be a dream to stand on the deck of a pool like this in Tunisia," said Mellouli, who won 15 gold medals, of the facility in Doha. Suddenly, it seems possible.
FADI AL-ASSAAD/REUTERS (MELLOULI)
SHINING EXAMPLE Mellouli made a splash with his 15 golds—and with his message of support for freedom in Tunisia.