By Paul Majendie
LONDON (Reuters) - Tunisian wrestling coach Zouhair Seghaier could not believe how quickly he was able to get his athletes back into training after the democratic revolution that launched the Arab spring.
The long road to the Olympics has been an arduous one - but taking part has been a victory in itself. The athletes, he said, are still trying to comprehend what democracy is all about, but can at last express themselves freely.
Seghaier is clearing savoring every minute of London 2012, even though his team did not land any Olympic medals in the Greco-Roman wrestling.
Speaking eloquently at the wrestling stadium of the upheavals in his North African homeland, he said: "We had our revolution, we were the first. Well done, quickly done."
The clean break paid rich dividends for the wrestlers.
"We were able to take up training again after seven days. That's the truth. We were frightened, but after seven days I called up the athletes - boys and girls - and they came to train every day as usual. Everything worked quickly, quickly," he said.
"Thank God there was not too much damage in Tunisia. The tourists are back."
The people's revolution began when street peddler Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire on a street in December 2010 after a policewoman confiscated his goods. He died the next month.
That lit the spark. A wave of protests followed and veteran dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled in January last year.
Since then, Tunisia has inspired revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Yemen and an uprising in Syria, and turned into a model for democratic change in the Middle East.
Seghaier, sporting his country's bright red uniform, reflected philosophically on what it all meant.
"I can speak freely to you today. Before, I could not. You can give your opinion. That is fantastic. For the athletes too it is an enormous change. Even the athletes don't understand yet what democracy means. But they express what is happening in their heads, the good and the bad," he said. "Today they are much freer. They can feel their freedom."
Minds and attitudes have changed in the world of sport too.
"It's not a question of a few months. It will take some time. But the leaders, the ministers have changed. You can feel that," he said.
Seghaier is convinced that sport can play a role in bringing people together. "Sport, for me, unites everybody. We are one country: the Tunisians, the English, the Africans, everybody."