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El-Moutawakel’s Olympic win

El-Moutawakel’s Olympic win
She inspired future generations of female athletes in the Middle East to achieve further sports milestones. (Getty Images)
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Updated 30 April 2020

El-Moutawakel’s Olympic win

El-Moutawakel’s Olympic win

The athlete was the first Arab Muslim woman (and Moroccan) to win a gold medal


On Aug. 8, 1984, Nawal El-Moutawakel, the only female athlete in Morocco’s delegation to the Los Angeles Summer Olympics, took 54 seconds to win the inaugural women’s 400-meter hurdles event.

As the first Arab and Muslim woman (and the first Moroccan) to win Olympic gold, and later as the first Muslim woman elected to the International Olympic Committee’s executive board, she inspired future generations of female athletes in the Middle East to achieve further sports milestones.

Those milestones include the lifting of bans on wearing the hijab in sports leagues, and the participation of Saudi female athletes in the Olympics in 2012. Under the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform plan, the wider participation of women in sports is likely to take them to even greater heights.

JEDDAH: Before the recent suspension of international flights, specifically on March 1, I was touring the Olympic Museum in Lausanne with the Riyadh United women’s basketball team by invitation of the former Swiss President Ueli Maurer. 

The museum takes you on a historical tour through interactive exhibits, from the Ancient Games in 776 BC to the father of modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who helped establish the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Paris on June 23, 1894.

Key Dates

  • 1

    Women are allowed to participate in the Olympics for the first time at the Paris Games; Switzerland’s Helene de Pourtales becomes the first female gold medalist (her team won for sailing); Britain’s Charlotte Cooper is the first individual champion (for singles tennis).

  • 2

    At the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Nawal El-Moutawakel wins the 400-meter hurdle, becoming the first Arab Muslim woman to win a gold medal.

  • 3

    For the first time, Saudi Arabia sends female athletes to the Olympics, held in London: Wojdan Shaherkani (judo) and Sarah Attar (track), who receives a standing ovation as she crosses the finish line.

    Timeline Image June 2012

  • 4

    At the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Sara Ahmed wins a bronze medal in weightlifting, making her Egypt’s first female Olympic medalist.

  • 5

    Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first US athlete to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab, wins a bronze medal in the team saber event at the Rio Olympics.

    Timeline Image Aug. 13, 2016

  • 6

    Then-Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman launches Vision 2030, which includes widespread participation in sports.

    Timeline Image April 25, 2016

  • 7

    The International Basketball Federation lifts its ban on players wearing the hijab.

  • 8

    The Saudi women’s unified basketball team wins a gold medal at the 2019 Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi.

  • 9

    Saudi Arabia sends its first female national teams to participate in the sixth GCC Women’s Games in Kuwait.

It was 1896 in Athens when the first modern Olympic Games took place, with 14 countries but no female competitors. In the next Olympics, in Paris in 1900, women were allowed to participate for the first time, in ankle-length skirts, but were limited to a few sports: Sailing, golf, tennis and croquet.

It was not until 1928, at the Olympics in Amsterdam, that women were allowed to compete in track and field. Fast-forward more than 55 years to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, where Nawal El-Moutawakel won the 400-meter hurdle, becoming the first Arab Muslim woman (and Moroccan) to win a gold medal. Newspapers around the world marked this milestone, with Arab News publishing her winning picture on its front page.

Even though I was very young to remember that event, her legend is a landmark in the accomplishments of Arab and Muslim female athletes. When she won, King Hassan II of Morocco called her to congratulate her, and he declared that all girls born that day were to be named in her honor. 

As I reflect on my own experience as a non-professional athlete growing up in Saudi Arabia, I will say that I come from a family who integrated sports in our lives from a young age. My siblings and I played tennis, football and even cricket with my father. 

I was also a student in Saudi private schools, which meant that I had opportunities to practice sports. But I found my passion in basketball. My uncle Tariq was my first basketball coach; he bought several rims and placed them in all family garages. 

In 2003, I gathered my teammates from my high school, forming a local basketball team. It led me to establish the Jeddah United Sports Co., which eventually became the first accredited sports academy in Saudi Arabia. The Jeddah United and Riyadh United women’s teams have participated in sports exchanges around the globe. 

Saudi women began accomplishing their own milestones in sport. In 2008, Arwa Mutabagani was appointed the first female board member of the Saudi Equestrian Federation. Her daughter Dalma Malhas won a historic bronze medal at the Summer Youth Olympics in Singapore in 2010. 

In May 2012, I made it to the base camp of Mount Everest with 10 Saudi women headed by Princess Reema bint Bandar, the current Saudi ambassador to the US, in an effort to raise awareness of breast cancer and the importance of physical activity for prevention and treatment.

“The 22-year-old from Casablanca, tears in her eyes, ran a lap of honor waving her country’s flag handed to her from the crowd after a victory in 54.61 seconds, just outside the world record.”

From a story on the front page of Arab News, Aug. 10, 1984

And in June 2012, Saudi Arabia joined the rest of the world in sending female athletes to the London Summer Olympics: Wojdan Shaherkani participated in judo, and Sarah Attar ran the 800-meter sprint. Attar may have been the last runner, but she got a standing ovation from 80,000 people who cheered her across the finish line. 

Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030 reform plan was announced on April 25, 2016. Among its strategic objectives of social and economic empowerment is the promotion of sports and physical activities. This includes increasing the proportion of individuals exercising to 40 percent from 13 percent; enabling Saudi athletes to achieve high performance in different sports; and expanding their exposure at international sporting games.

A page from the Arab News archive from Aug. 8, 1984.

In 2017, the Ministry of Education approved a physical education program for girls in public schools, and in 2018 women were allowed to attend sports events in stadiums, once strictly limited to men.

At the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, there were twice the number of Saudi female athletes, including Attar. Those Games also saw milestones for Arab and Muslim women: Sara Ahmed from Egypt became the first Arab female medalist in weightlifting when she won bronze; and fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who won bronze in the team saber event, was the first US athlete to compete in a hijab at the Games.

On May 3, 2017, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) announced the lifting of its ban on players wearing the hijab, a significant move because it is through the FIBA basketball World Cup that nations qualify for the Olympic Games. 

In March 2019, another milestone of inclusion took place in the Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi, when Saudi Arabia’s Special Olympians won 18 gold medals in various sports. For the girls’ basketball team, the Saudi Olympic Committee collaborated with the renowned Help Center, a non-profit organization that empowers, supports and trains girls and boys with intellectual disabilities. 

Jeddah United was tasked to recommend players who were not intellectually disabled, who were then integrated with athletes with intellectual disabilities to form the Saudi women’s unified basketball team. It was implemented according to the 4P concept: Public-Private-People-Partnership. The Saudi women’s unified basketball team made history, winning the only undefeated gold medal at the 2019 Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi. 

Later that year, Saudi women made a historic appearance at the sixth GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) Games in Kuwait, participating in eight different games and winning two gold medals in fencing.

In the Ancient Olympic Games in Greece, athletes competed in one event: A foot race for men. Who could have imagined then the course of development leading to an Arab Muslim female runner winning gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics?

Now, as we are unfortunately in lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics have been postponed along with many other sports events, we must maintain high spirits and look at the glass half full, with another extra year for preparation and training for 2021. May God protect humanity and the universe at large.

  • Lina K. Almaeena, a member of the Shoura Council, is co-founder of the Jeddah United Sports Co. and is on Forbes’ list of the 200 Most Powerful Arab Women.