- Title: TUNISIA: Tunisian Olympic athletes are given hero's home welcome.
- Date: 23rd August 2012
- Summary: VARIOUS PHOTOS OF THE MINISTER WHEN HE WAS A SOCCER PLAYER AND A COACH
- Embargoed: 7th September 2012 13:00
- Location: Tunisia
- Country: Tunisia
- Topics: Sports
- Reuters ID: LVAAYPVPNI5H93RUETAOAICKA2M6
- Story Text: Tunisian athletes win gold and silver medals at London Olympic Games despite hardships.
Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring uprisings, bagged an unprecedented raft of medals in London's Olympic Games.
The North African country took gold and bronze in the swimming and silver in the steeplechase.
It was a surprise for a nation that has won only 10 medals in total across the Games since it entered competition in 1960.
Habiba Ghribi became the first Tunisian woman to win an Olympic medal by taking silver in the Women's 3000m steeplechase.
The 28-year-old has been criticised at home for wearing a running gear that was described as "revealing" during her race, but during a training session at the National Athletics Centre in the city of Rades (15 km from Tunis) she said she is focusing on the positive.
"I'm very proud because it's the first time that a Tunisian athlete and a woman has achieved this. I'm also the first Arab woman athlete to win a silver medal at the Olympics," Ghribi said.
Ghribi says that athletes in Tunisia - both men and women - face funding challenges and following the country's performance this year has called for greater government assistance.
"The Ministry has provided me with the means but it's not enough in order to reach my goals. I think both male and female athletes should be provided with more resources. But with more means and better conditions, we'll have more ladies on the podium of the Olympics in the near future," Ghribi said.
Thousands rallied last week in protest against what they saw as a push by the country's Islamist-led government for constitutional changes that would degrade women's status in what is one of the Arab world's most liberal nations.
Tunisia's ruling Ennahda Movement is under pressure from both hardline Salafi Muslims, calling for the introduction of Islamic law, and secular opposition parties.
The sports ministry says it fully supports female participation in sport and that women should be free to wear what they want.
"We do not care about the clothes of female athletes. Women are free to wear what they want in Tunisia. They have their rights and nobody can change that," Tunisian Sports Minister, Tarek Dhiyeb, said.
The ministry also says it has a substantial funding program for women athletes planned for the coming years.
"There's a total equality between women and men and we're not willing to step back concerning the rights of women. This year, we're going to support female athletes and we'll provide more means for women's sports sector,'' he added.
Sports commentators say it is no surprise that Tunisia has done so well this Olympics.
Coaches had to work quickly to get their athletes back into training again after the people's revolution in December 2010 ousted veteran dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
But they say they benefited from greater freedom in democracy, as their own revolution was inspiring others in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria.
Sports journalist Sami Akrimi said in the past, athletes were told not to win.
"It's true that in the past, the former government didn't want to have national champions. This was a state policy as the president of the republic was supposed to be the unique champion alongside his royal clan of politicians and family. The revolutionary Tunisia needs more champions and success stories in sports. The political barrier has fallen or we'll have to break it. Therefore, we'll speak about future Tunisian champions. Our athletes have the will but coaching and resources are our real problems,'' Akrimi said.
One of the country's only stars is Oussama Mellouli, who started winning medals at the Games in Beijing but who he says he is now bowing out of sport after becoming the first swimmer in the world to get medals in the pool and open water.
He took gold in the Men's 10km marathon and bronze in the Men's 1,500 freestyle at the pool.
"I'm very pleased with the way my career has turned out. I become the most decorated Tunisian athlete of its history all the sports combined with two gold medals at the Olympic Games, three medals at the Olympics, 13 medals from 10 or 11 World Championships. I'm really pleased and I think I'm ready to walk away from the sport and be happy with it but we'll see the kind of support that we'll get from home," Mellouli said.
He said it was a "small miracle" for athletes to reach the top level in Tunisia and he hopes sport will now blossom in the country, and the Arab world as a whole, after the London Games.
"When we talk about my achievements and when we talk about other people from this country that have reached this level of performance in sports and get into that level, they are small miracles and we are exceptions in the Arab World in general. So we're trying to push against that barrier and we're trying to set an example and hopefully that example will inspire generations to come even with these kind of conditions which are very challenging," Mellouli said.
Mellouli also became his country's first double gold medallist and he hopes this Games will inspire future generations of Tunisian athletes.
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