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Al Moutawakel could break down yet more barriers

Moroccan former hurdler is a candidate to become IOC’s first female president

Image Credit: AFP
Nawal Al Moutawakel
Gulf News

London: The International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session, by secret ballot, elects the IOC President from among its members for a term of eight years. This term is renewable once for another four years.

The current IOC President, Jacques Rogge, was re-elected for a second term on October 9, 2009. His term ends in September next year, when the IOC will also convene to decide on the bids entered for the 2020 Olympics in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

When the IOC convenes again to pick a new president, there will be an opportunity to elect a woman who has been a stellar example of the doctrines of the Olympic movement. She would definitely be a standard for women, especially in the Arab world, who look to express their individuality through the medium of sport.

Rewind to the 1984 Olympics Games in Los Angeles: the world’s best female hurdlers are in their respective lanes waiting for the start of the 400-metre hurdles final. Among the cream of the crop are Jamaica’s Sandra Farmer-Patrick, Judy Brown of the US, India’s PT Usha and Australia’s Debbie Flintoff-King. Lost in the middle of the eight runners is Morocco’s little-known (by size and by profile) Nawal Al Moutawakel.

The race had contrasting meanings for each of the runners, but each hurdle that Al Moutawakel strode over would be an obstacle overcome for the plight of women in the Arab world. The records will show that she won in 54.61 seconds. Then she picked herself up, disoriented, looked left and right to see if she had won, or lost, and began to cry. That day Nawal cried for her father Mohammad, who had passed away and was not present to witness the moment of his daughter’s greatest triumph.

For Nawal, it was more than just a gold medal. She became the first Moroccan, African and Muslim woman to gain the distinction. Her journey as an athlete and ambassador for the Olympics movement bears witness to this. It opened the doors for Arab women to believe that they could participate as athletes and represent their countries. Sport was no longer the preserve of men. That day the king of Morocco decreed that all girls born on August 8 should be named Nawal. Many years later, at a public gathering, Nawal met her namesakes who had grown up to be women with a purpose in life. There could be no greater reward.

After retiring from athletics, Nawal joined the IOC and served with distinction in various roles. On the eve of the opening of the London Games, she was elected unopposed as IOC vice-president — another first for a woman from a Muslim nation, following her earlier election to the executive board.

Which brings us to the question of the future president of the IOC. There is definitely a case to be made for a female president — and by elevating Nawal to the status of vice-president, Rogge has cleared the decks. She has also been given a few challenging assignments to fulfil. It now remains to be seen if she can gain the confidence of her colleagues. That moment may not come this September, but there is a realistic possibility that 2020 could be the defining moment in the life of a little-known Moroccan hurdler, who smashed all stereotypes to state that potential is gender neutral and all that is required is opportunity and encouragement.

Nawal Al Moutawakel is back to the starting blocks and looking at striding over the hurdles once again.