The first African-born Arab Muslim woman to ever win Olympic gold reflects on the evolution of women’s rights in Arab countries.
The 2019 IAAF World Championships in Doha, Qatar, which concluded on Sunday, cast a spotlight on a region not exactly known for a big fan base in the sport. But it seemed like a fitting reason to catch up with Nawal El Moutawakel, the Moroccan who won Olympic 400-meter hurdles gold in 1984, the first African-born Arab Muslim woman to become an Olympic champion in any sport.
Back then, El Moutawakel became the symbol of hope for women’s sports—a national hero and advocate. Her victory laid ground for more opportunities for girls at the introductory level and more avenues for female athletes to compete. In North African countries including Iran and Turkey, women reached the Olympic level in judo, shooting, equestrian, fencing, and track and field. That progress, however, sputtered in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.
Qatar is one of only three nations, along with Saudi Arabia and Brunei, that had never sent women to the Olympics until 2012. Then, four women received wildcard entries meant to encourage participation. Qatar was bidding to host several major international sports events, which may have been a consideration when officials decided to include women that year. In 2016, the tiny Gulf Coast country sent its largest contingent ever to the Rio Games, but of those 38 athletes, only two were women who had received wildcard entries.
El Moutawakel is now a vice president of the International Olympic Committee, IAAF council member, and minister of sport in Morocco. Women’s Running spoke with her by phone from her home in Casablanca about her experience as an Arab athlete in the 1970s and 80s, and what’s changed since then.
Women’s Running: Tell me about growing up in Morocco and your start in track and field.
Nawal El Moutawakel: There were five children in my family—three brothers and one sister. My mom and dad both practiced sports. My dad did judo and my mom played volleyball. We grew up loving sports; sports meant a lot to us. We all did track and field at the same club. We did a little of everything—hurdles, throwing, long jump, cross country—to see where we were performing best. I started at 14 years old. It was a mixed gender program on the same track team. I was used to running and playing with my brothers and cousins in the streets of Casablanca. I didn’t know anything about track or the Olympics until I watched [Miruts] Yifter, the Ethiopian [who won two gold medals], on a black and white TV. I couldn’t imagine I would one day compete in the Olympics.
At any rate, I followed my older brother to a track not too far from our home—it was a dirt track, and small, maybe 320 meters—in downtown Casablanca. I really enjoyed it, running freely—wow, this is fun! The coaches watching us; I’m sure they saw all the mistakes, but I just wanted to run fast. Before this, we played soccer in the streets, boys and girls, but club soccer was a boys’ sport. Once I discovered track and field, I didn’t even try to go back to soccer.
I discovered I didn’t really love cross country—it was very tiring for me. But it made me stronger. We would go to the forest to run cross country, where I still run. I know every tree, every uphill, every curve. Sometimes we ran on the sand at the beach. There were six or seven girls on the cross-country team, and I was the last one to finish. I did not like it too much as a beginner. The sprints, I enjoyed.
WR: You’re Muslim, and Morocco was a Muslim-majority country. Did you wear hijab or cover your arms and legs growing up? Were girls encouraged to pursue sports at a high level, past high school, for example?
NEM: I don’t recall covering heads at that time. We were always running uncovered; previous [Moroccan] champions were running in a similar way. My first role model was my mom. She was a banker and raised five kids while working—she was tough, an emancipated woman. We grew up in an open-minded environment. My mom and dad were the first to support me. They opened doors for me and were always trying to make me believe in myself. They gave me self-confidence even if good results were not there. They traveled with us on Saturday and Sunday, cheering for me and my brothers and sister. They were very supportive; they understood the impact of sports.
WR: You mentioned that your father was liberal. How did this help you pursue athletics?
NEM: Our family was [moderate]—I don’t know about liberal. My parents were open-minded. They let me travel with a mixed gender team. I was coming home late, sometimes at midnight, escorted by our coach, of course, even though there were exams the next day. But I still had to do housework to prepare to be a housewife. Sometimes you have to respect tradition.
WR: How did you choose 400 meter-hurdles, an event that was new to women’s athletics?
NEM: I started at 100 and 200 meters. My coach was thinking about moving me to 400 meters or switching totally to 400-meter hurdles. I’m 5-feet, 1-inch. What I knew about 400-meter hurdles was tall, elegant Edwin Moses. The 400 hurdles is not for me, I thought. My coach and I were not getting along. He said, “Just try 60-meter high hurdles.” So, I tried it. Even though I’m small, my velocity was so high I cleared the hurdles easily. My coach was astonished. I surprised myself. In my first race, we aimed for 60 seconds or less and achieved it. My coach said, “I think this is our event.” In 1982 I went to the world championships and in 1983 I missed the final in 400 hurdles by a few hundredths of a second. I cried so hard. I thought I missed the event of my life because of lack of competition.
WR: Why did you leave Morocco and come to the U.S at the beginning of 1984?
NEM: The 400-meter hurdles is a highly technical event which at the international level was only a men’s event. In Africa, there were few women competing in that event. I knew I had to go where there was more competition, better competition. When I ran in Europe, I met these guys from Nigeria who were running at Iowa State in the U.S. The coaches at Iowa State approached me about studying in the States, and I thought, why not?
WR: Your father almost changed his mind about letting you go to Iowa State? Why?
NEM: We were very close, we had a strong relationship, and he was afraid. There was no Google then. We didn’t know anything about Ames, Iowa. We had no clue where I was going. I could read English, but to improve, I was taking English classes at the American Center. The teacher there kept encouraging me to go to Iowa State, and he pushed my dad to let me go. I flew Casablanca to New York to Chicago to Des Moines. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t there yet—we still had to drive through the snow [in January 1984] to Ames. I saw the snow and thought, oh my lord, where am I? The coaches met me soon after I arrived and we went to Hilton Coliseum to do some drills. I was so jetlagged, it didn’t go very well, so we stopped and went to Bonanza in Ames—all-you-can-eat for $10. It was a culture shock for me, I had never been so far from my family. But there were lots of foreign athletes at ISU then and they made me feel at home very quickly.
WR: You were only at Iowa State for six months or so, but that was the lead-up to your Olympic victory—how did that come about?
NEM: I had qualified for the Olympics in Europe [in the summer of 1983]. At Iowa State, I raced every weekend and got better every weekend. My technique got better; I continued to touch into sprint events. I smashed every ISU record and won an NCAA title. I would wake up at 5 a.m., put on my shoes and run for two hours. You know, I hated cross country when I was in high school but it made me strong. I would come back in the afternoon to do real training with the team. Sometimes in the morning, I swam.
In Morocco, I knew I was winning only because there were so few competitors, but in the U.S. there was lots of competition, so that built my confidence. After NCAA championships I went back to Morocco to see my family. My father had passed away while I was in the U.S. I knew he would have wanted me to continue to follow my dreams, so I picked myself up, and traveled to France to train with my French coach [from her club in Casablanca]. In July, the Moroccan Olympic athletes had a visit from the King. I was the only female who made a qualifying performance. When the King wished us all the best, I felt he was talking to me. I felt he was saying to me, “You must bring gold.”
I didn’t have a coach or any support people in Los Angeles, so I asked my coaches from Iowa State, Pat Moynihan and Ron Renko, to come out to Los Angeles. We met every evening at the athlete village and analyzed my races. They said, “Look how easy, how smooth, how confident you are. We believe you are going to win.” I said, “Come on.” They made me sing my national anthem. Everything we’d practiced and prepared for happened the next day. There was one false start—it was not me. So, we started again. Near the finish I looked around and couldn’t see anyone else and thought maybe I had false started, so I slowed down a little bit. Even so, it was my best race. It took just 54.61 seconds to change my life. My story started from there.
WR: Reporters said, “You have saved Arab women. Arabic women used to be in jail. Now that you won, it’s going to allow them to come out and work out and race.” Jail? What did they mean? First of all, when you say Arab, what does that mean?
NEM: From Morocco to Saudi Arabia, our origin is the same. We are all Arabs. Islam is the religion; we are Arabic Muslim.
Maybe for [the reporters] it was unusual to see women competing, running like men do at such a high level. I grew up with female heroes, so it was not unusual to me. After I won my gold medal, I was not prepared to perform at the press conference. I was shocked by some of the questions—are you sure your country has TV to watch you? To them, Morocco was a synonym for desert and camels. Yes, we have TV, we don’t only have camels. It was not ignorance so much as innocence. Mr. Google did not exist, remember.
After I won, they filmed me in Morocco eating with my family, maybe to see how this woman from Morocco had managed to win an Olympic gold medal. Maybe they were surprised, I had dreams, like a girl who comes from anywhere—you start from scratch and because of hard work, you transform, you go from zero to hero. It didn’t happen overnight. It was 99 percent hard work and 1 percent chance, and I took my chance. I went to the United States to be at Iowa State. I met Ron Renko and trained with athletes who were better than me.
WR: Did attitudes or opportunities change for women in Morocco or the Arab world because of your gold medal?
NEM: Yes, a lot, many things. You can’t believe, the change is huge. Today Moroccan women win gold, silver, bronze. The legacy is huge. Hurdler Nezha Bidouane was a two-time world champion, in 1997 and 2001, Olympic bronze medalist. There is a Saudi runner Sarah Attar [who was born in the U.S. and lives and trains in California], and an equestrian at the Olympic level [Dalma Malhas was born in the U.S. and lives in France].
WR: In 1991, Algerian middle-distance runner Hassiba Boulmerka was called anti-Muslim, a traitor, and received death threats for running in shorts and showing her arms. She was forced to leave her country to continue to train. Did this affect Arab women getting into track and field?
NEM: Maybe only Hassiba can reply to this. There are girls in Syria and Saudi Arabia in sports. Veiled or non-veiled, it has nothing to do with religion. Islam encourages boys and girls in swimming, equestrian, archery. I don’t understand some mentalities who want to use sports as a weapon. I was never targeted. I never received criticism for not covering. I can only speak about myself. I was encouraged to practice sports. In 1993, I hosted a 5K run for fun in Casablanca. It started with 100 women and 10 years later, 30,000 women ran. My mom ran the 5K, hair in the air, not covered.
WR: Sheikha Asma Al Thani, director of marketing and communications for Doha 2019, has said barriers to women participating in track still exist. What are those challenges?
NEM: In 2012, the International Olympic Committee had a deadline for all nations wishing to compete to send one female. Sometimes it was not easy, they had to push. You start by crawling, then walking, then running. [Qatar] is working hard to allow girls to compete. There is a strong will within the country to make Qatar a sports destination.
WR: Do you see specific barriers?
NEM: Mental barriers—that women’s place is at home, sports are for men, that sort of thing. Qatar has initiated girls’ programs in high schools.
WR: The Aspire Academy, on the campus where the world championships [were] held, is boys-only. You grew up in gender integrated programs—did that help you become an Olympian?
NEM: They are practicing sports in gender-separated programs. In the 1990s, there were no ladies allowed in stadiums [in Qatar]. Maybe it will take time for women to reach the Olympic level. Making physical education the number-one priority for women is part of every country’s mission. It takes time, decades maybe, but the future is feminine. Things are brighter and brighter for women.