El Moutawakel, torchbearer for Arab sportswomen
MONACO - Nawal El Moutawakel took just 54 seconds to go from the “dark to the light” when she became the first Arab woman from Africa to win an Olympic gold medal in the 400 metres hurdles at the 1984 Games.
The 56-year-old Moroccan has since forged a successful career as a sports administrator, having twice been minister of Sports and is an influential member of the International Olympic Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federations.
“I consider myself a role model with my other Olympic champions back home in Morocco,” she said. “I could have stayed and spent most of my life enjoying my glory of 1984 but, no, that’s wrong.
“Fifty-four seconds allowed me to go from dark to light, like I said, from zero to hero. I would like to share every single moment with the younger generation.”
El Moutawakel, whose victory in Los Angeles was marked by Moroccan King Hassan II ordering every girl born that day named in her honour, said the hurdles on the track reflected the challenges she had faced in her life.
However, she always met them head-on, claiming “my victory meant no more just washing the dishes for women.”
“In my religion, women were never forbidden to compete,” she said at the Laureus awards ceremonies in February. “Our Prophet (Mohammad) used to run against his wife and she used to beat him until she found out she was pregnant, that’s how he beat her.
“Women could compete equally as men and that’s why I felt growing up in an environment that was very supportive, very positive until today, so I don’t think there is any resistance whatsoever.”
El Moutawakel supports her claim by citing a passage from the Quran in Arabic.
“Teach your children how to run, do horseback riding and also swimming,” she said. “This is in our religion. He never said, teach your daughter or teach your son. It says ‘teach your children’ and, in children, there is a son and daughter.”
El Moutawakel, a mother of two children — daughter Zineb and son Roda — said she received all the support she desired from her parents, especially her father, Mohammed.
He allayed her fears of how much bigger some of her rivals were by saying “rubies and diamonds come in small packages.”
“My father was a judoka. My mum did physical activities at high school. We grew up five brothers and sisters, we were all in the same club and we all did athletics so I was in an environment that was very positive, very supportive,” she said.
“I never felt any resistance (to wanting to be an athlete) whatsoever.
“Until the day I won in 1984, August 8th, when many microphones were placed in front of me, talking about this resistance and I was like, ‘What do you mean?’”
El Moutawakel said her great regret was that her devoted father did not live to see her moment of glory, dying in a car crash in early 1984 a week after she had started university in the United States. She said she found the spotlight unnerving.
“When I ran in 1984, my coaches (Iowa State University’s Ron Renko and Pat Moynihan) were teaching me how to run but they weren’t teaching me how to speak,” she said.
“So all of a sudden I had hundreds of journalists with microphones wanting me to speak and I said: ‘I have nothing to say, I showed you in my performance.’”