Prince Albert II of Monaco, long one of Europe’s most eligible bachelors, on Wednesday finally announced a long-awaited engagement to South African champion swimmer Charlene Wittstock.

A brief statement from the palace in the 52-year-old’s tiny Mediterranean statelet confirmed the engagement, but did not put a date on the eventual wedding, which courtiers will be hoping might produce a legitimate heir.

Prince Albert is the son of deceased Prince Rainier III and the late Hollywood actress Grace Kelly and has ruled Monaco, where he is broadly well-liked by his 8,000 subjects, since succeeding his father in July 2005.

Wittstock is 20 years Albert’s junior and a school teacher.

She is also a former Commonwealth 100 metres backstroke champion who has appeared on the prince’s arm at several society events in Monaco, a Riviera millionaire’s playground.

Born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, she also competed for South Africa in the Olympics in Sydney 2000, and won three golds in the 2002 swimming World Cup.

Prince Albert is a fellow Olympian, having competed in five Olympic games as a member of his country’s bobsleigh team.

Wittstock was first spotted with the prince in 2001 at an event in Monte Carlo and was subsequently his guest at high profile events such as the Formula 1 Grand Prix in the principality and the opening of the 2006 Winter Olympics.

Her profile rose further when she was picked for a swimwear photo shoot by Sports Illustrated, but she has complained in the South African press of media intrusion into her private life.

With a fortune estimated at some two billion euros (2.4 billion dollars), Albert has been seen with a string of beautiful women over the years.

He has managed to keep his love-life largely out of the public view — in contrast with his sisters Caroline and Stephanie whose stormy affairs have been a constant source of celebrity gossip.

Albert has fathered two children, a girl and a boy who were officially recognised after he had acceded to the throne, but neither can succeed him as Monaco’s constitution requires its rulers to be born in wedlock.

The children are Jazmin Grace, 20, whose mother Tamara Rotolo is a former American waitress and Alexandre Coste, 6, from a French-Togolese former flight attendant, Nicole Coste.

Albert’s failure to marry and have legitimate children had resulted in a 2002 change to Monaco’s constitution, under which the 700-year-old Grimaldi dynasty can continue through the female line if he dies without an heir.

Monaco, a super-rich enclave on the Riviera coast entirely surrounded on its landward side by France, covers only 200 hectares (494 acres). It is home to 32,000 permanent residents, only 8,000 of them citizens.

Low tax rates, a luxury yachting marina and a famed casino have attracted many wealthy expatriates, and around 36,000 mainly-French non-residents arrive every day to work in its tourism and financial services businesses.

Albert rules as head of state, supported by a senior French civil servant and a government of four senior advisers.

Source: AFP