“I’m very happy for Tunisia," said Habiba Ghribi after astounding the sporting world by taking silver in the 3,000-metres steeplechase at Daegu World Athletics championships last August. "This is a great victory for me personally and for the Tunisian people. So I dedicate it to all Tunisians and the Arab people everywhere. What can I say? I’m very, very happy.”
The performance was all the more remarkable in that it occurred just a year after a double operation on the soles of her feet that left her bedridden for much of 2010. Her recovery was complicated by the unexpected explosion of public anger and revolution in Tunis exactly a year ago.
“I continued to train, that was the only thing I would go out to do” she told RFI. “There was fighting and tear gas everywhere, It was very tough, but it was such an important event for me. But after a month of training with bullets flying around me, I had no choice but to leave the country, on 14 January.”
Ghribi continued her preparation for the season near Paris, where her husband comes from. But she was still deeply affected by the dramatic events she had witnessed in her homeland.
Sofiane Essit is the vice-president of the Tunisian Athletics Union. The soft-spoken administrator witnessed the iron will and determination Ghribi displayed in the uncertain month before President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was toppled. Despite gunfire and explosions, she continued to train every day, he said.
At the same time in Egypt, another world-class athlete was confronted with an historic uprising that shook his world.
The current African 100-metre champion, Amr Seoud, was in Cairo when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets and toppled the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak.
Seoud was unable to train for four months as all the sporting facilities and structures shut down. Mubarak's forced departure notwithstanding, Seoud told RFI that only elections in the athletics federation can change anything and they are set for September this year, after the London Olympics.
This status quo is not something Tunisian sportsmen and women have experienced this last year.
There, the winds of revolution also swept through the corrupt and parochial sports federations. Slaheddine Boudhina is the press attaché for Tunisia’s athletics federation. For him, Habiba Ghribi’s silver medal at the 2011 world championships brought back memories of Tunisian Mohammed Gamoudi who thrilled the sporting world as a pioneer of African long distance running. Gamoudi’s career was capped by a gold and two silvers at three Olympic Games.
However, times have changed and for athletics boss Sofiane Essit, it was Tunisia’s revolution which was one of the main catalysts for Habiba Ghribi’s remarkable performance at the end of last season.