Dubai At the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, as many as 26 countries refrained from sending female athletes to compete on the world’s biggest sporting stage.
However, by Beijing 2008 that list had shrunk to just three nations; Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei.
Four years down the line, London 2012 is set to be the first Olympics in history whereby every participating nation will have at least one female representative. And with the inclusion of women’s boxing, it will also be the first Olympics to involve female athletes in every sport.
Saudi Arabia, who had opened the doors for women participants last month, were the last one to complete the numbers when they named two female athletes on July 9.
Gulf News takes a look below on the women participants from the Arab world at the Games:
Middle distance runner, Sarah Attar, 17 and Judoka, Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahman Shahrkhani, 27, were Saudi’s historic first-ever female Olympic selections. Attar, born in California of mixed Saudi and American parentage, is the youngest Arab athlete competing at the Olympics. The student of Malibu’s Pepperdine University, who will take part in the 800 metres, having primarily specialized in the 1500m and 3000m. Her respective personal bests for the latter events are 5:30.51 and 11:37.41.
Meanwhile, Shahrkhani, also raised outside of Saudi, will compete in the 78kg Judo event, to cement a legacy along with Attar, as trailblazers in Saudi female sport.
Attar said: “I definitely think that my participation in this Olympic Games can increase women’s participation in sports in general. I can only hope for the best for them and that we can really get some good strides going for women in the Olympics further and just in sports in general.”
With Qatar bidding to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, pressure was mounting on them to be more accommodating to female athletes. When Qatar’s shooting prodigy Bahiya Al Hamad won three gold medals and two silvers in the 2011 Arab Games, the 19-year-old from Doha became an obvious choice to represent the peninsula on the global stage.
Awarded a wild-card invitation, Al Hamad will compete in the 10m air rifle and air pistol events. Al Hamad will also have the privilege of lifting the Qatari flag at the opening ceremony of London 2012. Expressing her joy on Twitter, she said: “I’m truly proud and humbled to carry the Qatar flag among my fellow athletes from all over the world.”
Swimmer Nada Arjaki has also been handed a wild card invite. She will compete in the women’s 50m freestyle, aiming for a personal best of 30 seconds six seconds over the predicted winning time. Arjaki was also part of the committee that was bidding for Doha to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Qatar’s third and final female athlete on the plane to London this summer is 17-year-old sprinter Noor Al-Malki. The teenager will aim to beat her personal best of 12.73 seconds in the 100m.
At Beijing 2008, Brunei were expelled from the Games before the opening ceremony because of a failure to officially register their athletes.
This year, however, it’s unlikely that the three athletes on their way to London will make the same mistake twice. Of the trio is 19 year-old Maziah Mahusin – Brunei’s first female Olympic contender.
Despite the fact that her personal best in the 400m hurdles is almost 10 seconds outside the international standard, Mahusins’s inclusion in the event by virtue of a rare universality place is seen as a historic feat.
Like Qatar’s Bahiya al Hamad, Mahusin will also be her country’s flag-bearer at the opening ceremony of the games.
Of the eight women representing Bahrain in London this summer, much of the hopes of bringing home a medal lie with Mimi Belete Gebregeiorges, the long distance runner of Ethiopian descent. In the 2010 Asian Games, Gebregeiorges came first in the 5000m and finished in a respectable seventh in the 1500 metre dash at the 2011 World Championships in South Korea.
United Arab Emirates:
When 17-year-old weightlifter Khadija Mohammad qualified for London last month, she became only the second woman in the history of the UAE to compete at the Olympics. Mohammad follows in the footsteps of Shaikha Maitha Bint Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who took part in the women’s under-67 kg taekwondo event in Beijing.
Mohammad is also the only weightlifter from the GCC to make it to the Olympics. She’ll be hoping to add to Shaikh Ahmad bin Mohammad bin Hasher Al Maktoum’s gold in the double trap in 2004, which is currently the UAE’s only gold medal.
Egypt will be sending a record number of women to the Olympics with 34 athletes set to compete in London. It is also the highest representation of women from any Arab or Islamic country, beating their own benchmark when they sent 29 athletes to Beijing in 2008.
One of their athletes is 24-year-old Aya Medany. Medany will compete in the pentathlon. Consisting of swimming, horseback riding, fencing, and combined shooting and running, winners are decided by the amount of points accumulated across the five events.
Hopes are high for Medany to become the first female medalist from Egypt. She is also the only pentathlete in the London games to wear the hijab.
Elsewhere Shaimma El-Gammal, 32, will be taking part in her fourth Olympics. Having represented Egypt in fencing in Sydney, Athens and Beijing, El-Gammal will be hoping London will bring with it a change in fortune. Her best finish in the Olympics to date has been a modest 8th in the Women’s Individual Foil at Athens in 2004.
In total Egypt is sending nine synchronised swimmers, five for fencing, three gymnasts, three table tennis players, three weightlifters, two rowers, two for taekwondo and one each for pentathlon, archery, wrestling, athletics and badminton.
Sara El Bekri is easily Morocco’s best female swimmer and she has the numbers to prove it. The 25-year-old from Casablanca holds almost every individual swimming record in Morocco - from the 1500m freestyle to the 200m butterfly. Getting to London was a cakewalk for El Bekri, but it’ll be competing on the world stage that will be the real challenge.
One of Tunisia’s big hopes to bring home a medal is 25-year-old 3000m steeplechase runner Habiba Ghribi. Ever since she won a silver medal in the World Athletic Championships in South Korea last year, Ghribi has been primed for success in London. That silver medal also earned her the all-time Tunisian women’s record, clocking a time of 9:11:97.
Habiba Ghribi smiles after crossing the finish line in the women’s 3000m steeplechase at the World Championships in Berlin in 2009. She won silver in South Korea last year.
Blazing a trail
Sarah Attar of Saudi Arabia is the youngest Arab athlete preparing to compete at the Games. The Saudi Arabian is taking part in the 800 metres.
Going for gold
Bahrain’s Mimi Belete Gebregeiorges is widely viewed as the country’s best hope of a medal. Here the runner of Ethiopian descent is seen winning the 5000 metres at the 2010 Asian Games.
Noor Al Malki will be hoping to beat her personal best of 12.73 seconds in the women’s 100 metres.
Aya Medany of Egypt finished second at the Modern Pentathlon World Championships in Budapest back in 2008. She arrives in London as one of her country’s best chances of an Olympic medal.
Carrying the hopes of a nation
Khadija Mohammad, who competes in the 75kg category, will be the first female lifter from the Gulf at the Olympics and the first Emirati to qualify for the Olympics outright. She is seen in practice at the Al Shabab Club in Dubai.
Sara Al Bekri of Morocco, whose name is synonymous with swimming in her country.
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