London: A young Saudi judo fighter’s decisive defeat on the mat Friday is being hailed as a victory for women in the conservative Gulf kingdom, a step that would have seemed unimaginable if thousands of fans at the sprawling ExCel Center and millions at home hadn’t seen it with their own eyes.
Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani was one of just two women competing for Saudi Arabia at the games, the first time the Gulf state has sent female athletes at all. And she was only able to compete in judo after a compromise between Olympic organizers, the international judo federation and Saudi officials that cleared the way for her to wear a modified hijab.
Even that was unacceptable to hard-liners, who said she was dishonoring herself by fighting in front of men, including the male referee and judges.
The crowd roared as Shahrkhani stepped onto the mat for her fight against Puerto Rico’s Melissa Mojica wearing judo dress and what appeared to be a tight-fitting black cap.
The drama was not in seeing who would win. In a competition where everyone else holds a high-level black belt, Shahrkhani has only attained a blue.
On the mat, the Saudi looked tentative and cautious on her feet, unwilling to grab Mojica’s uniform and making little attempt to throw her off balance. The two heavyweights circled each other for about a minute before Mojica, the 24th-ranked judo fighter in the world in her weight class, grabbed Shahrkhani with a secure grip on her collar and flipped her onto her back, ending the match in 82 seconds.
As she rose to her feet, Shahrkhani gently reached for her head to make sure the hijab was still in place. It was, and the two women bowed to each other and left to a loud ovation.
Afterward, the teenager — whose age is given as 16 by Olympic organizers, but 17 or 18 by her father, and 19 on the Saudi Olympic website — walked with her father past journalists and TV cameras.
“I am happy to be at the Olympics,” she whispered in Arabic, her brother, Hassan, holding both her arms. “Unfortunately, we did not win a medal, but in the future we will and I will be a star for women’s participation.”