Olympic 1500m free champion of 2008 and 10km marathon champion of London 2012, Oussama Mellouli today reveals the struggle he has faced to shake off being labelled the friend of a dictator at home in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmin Revolution of 2010 in which President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced out of power by popular protests.
Confirming that he was indeed supported by a regime heading for a fall on his rise through the aquatic ranks after he started to turn heads at 17, Mellouli, says that he was used as a pawn by politicians who needed to reassure a restless population and wider world that all was well in Tunisia.
It was not until Mellouli arrived in the United States after a period at Font Romeu in France that he started to read about his country and understand it in different terms beyond his teenage years. "I was a Tunisian abroad I had to find something that makes me proud of my country, as can the Americans or the French. So I immersed myself in an analysis of Tunisia," says Mellouli. "I had not expected to find what I found. I read the reports of Human Rights Watch; I knew it was not possible to win elections with 90% of the vote! I hated the fact that it was a dictatorship."
At meets when he swam fast, Mellouli came under pressure from journalists - and even his own parents - "not to forget to thank the president". Says Mellouli: "Once I won a medal, ministers, officials said 'this is the system that brought Mellouli to this'. I knew it had nothing to do with them but I could not say anything. In addition, my father is a policeman, in customs, Ben Ali was the leader of his superiors ... that's why, after my Olympic title in London, when I returned to the presidential palace for Moncef Marzouki (the new president) I gave him a [gift] larger than that Ben Ali had given to me: I was really proud. Only then could I say that everything that happened was down to the efforts of my parents, my coaches, my fans. Nobody forced me to thank Marzouki."
The former president was there to press the flesh when Mellouli returned home after winning the world 1500m freestyle crown in Dubai. Some of the last pictures taken of the dictator, who was forced out of office in January 2011, include those of him shaking hands with Mellouli. By the time Ben Ali's fate was sealed, Mellouli was back in the US and, as such, there are no images of the swimmer joining friends in street protests against the crumbling regime.
Criticism of Mellouli reached social networks in February 2011. They included falsehoods that included reports of how Mellouli was married to Ben Ali's daughter Halima. The swimmer had never even met her. He had met her dad, four times - and he had asked for land to be granted to him by the president as reward for sporting achievement.
Mellouli confirms: "In 2008, after my first Olympic title, I asked Ben Ali for land in Carthage. I knew Mohamed Gammoudi [the first Olympic champion for Tunisia, over 5000m on the track at Mexico in 1968] had received acres and acres of land from Habib Bourguiba [head of Tunisia from 1957 to 1987] and I knew that I would not have sponsorship contracts, as would a French Olympic champion. I asked Ben Ali directly after my win [in Beijing] … I got it, and now I am building my house."
The trouble for Mellouli is that any assets handed out at the time Ben Ali was in power are now deemed to link any beneficiaries with the former regime and all the bad things it stood for. The swimmer took criticism badly. "People said ''Ben Ali picked him up at the airport, he promised him his daughter, he gave him a lot. What's the story?'" Mellouli tells L'Equipe. "They said I was the son of Ben Ali. I was upset. It was unfair, unkind. During the revolution, I trained like crazy because I found another meaning to my career. I was going to swim for a free Tunisia, represent something noble. All these attacks have affected me, knocked my motivation. I didn't win a medal at Shanghai 2011 world championships.
"On my return from China, I went walking with a friend, and two traders began to yell 'Ben Ali is gone, you're nothing!" For the first time in my life, I walked the streets of Tunis and I was ashamed of myself. I felt that the people despised me. Fortunately we are not an armed country, otherwise I would have been in danger. The media contacted me to ask 'why did you not participate in the revolution? Why did the president come to see you while the south was on fire?' I explained everything. But in that climate, I knew that I needed to succeed at the London Games to avoid being killed by the gossip. The story would have been written in a different way [had he not won at London 2012].
You can read the rest of a long, fine and revealing article in the G1 print section of L'Equipe today as reporters tour Tunis with Melloulli and revisit the scenes of his youth and the revolution.