TOKYO — The world needs joy. Especially now. This is why, really, we are having these Olympics.
When Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui touched the final wall in the men’s 400-meter freestyle Sunday morning, he looked around and saw that, yes, he was first. Him. Just 18 years old. In that instant, he erupted. It looked like he might cry in amazement and disbelief. He pulled himself up onto the lane line and punched the water. A few moments later, on the medals stand, in a T-shirt and shorts marked with Tunisia's emblems, his eyes bright, his nation’s anthem played for him -- for him! -- and he drank it all in, and when he took off his mask, he could be seen to be beaming in sheer joy.
This is what triumph — over everything — looks and feels like.
And this is what we — the collective we — need.
This reminder that — despite everything — we, people everywhere, can triumph. Over the many obstacles and challenges in our world. Even, especially, now.
Despite absurd odds.
When nobody believes in you. Except you.
When just two years ago you were ranked outside the top 100 in the world.
When, coming into Tokyo, according to FINA, the international swim governing body, your world ranking was No. 17.
When, coming into the race, you are the last qualifier — by a mere 14-hundredths of a second.
When you are only the second swimmer, ever, from Tunisia to make an Olympic swim final — the distance legend Ous Mellouli a gold medalist in the 1500 meters in Beijing in 2008, a bronze winner in London in 2012 and, as well, the 10-kilometer open-water gold medalist in London.
As the last qualifier, you were out in Lane Eight, typically the province of the oh-he’s-in-race-but-so-what guy.
But this — this — was one of those races where anyone had a chance.
Sun Yang, the Chinese star, was out of the Tokyo Games, found liable — controversially — of a doping violation.
Mack Horton, who won Rio 2016 gold, finished third at the Australian swim Trials. Just as at the U.S. Trials, a third place meant he failed to make the team.
Elijah Winnington, 21, who won the Aussie trials, went out strong Sunday, leading the race after the first 150. Then Jack McLoughlin, 26, the second-place finisher at those same Australian Trials, took over, leading the race through the next four laps, through 350.
Out on the outside, meanwhile, Hafnaoui, third at 100, had pulled himself into second by the third turn — that is, behind Winnington, in the next lane over, seven, at 150 meters. He just stayed there. In second, now behind McLoughlin, in lane two, way over across the pool. Chugging along. Hafnaoui's splits from 200 and beyond were the sort you love, because consistency is what wins: 28.55, 28.50, 28.56, 28.42.
Then came the final 50.
And 18-year-old Ahmed Hafnaoui just turned it on. He went 27.23. Boom. He was, incredibly, improbably, Olympic champion. The winning time: 3:43.36.
McLoughlin took second, 3:43.52, 16-hundredths back.
American Kieran Smith surged to bronze with a final-lap 27.13, touching in 3:43.94, 58-hundredths back.
"I just can’t believe it." Hafnaoui said. "It’s a dream," he added. "And it came true."