Moments after stepping off the mat she smiled and even laughed. For 16-year-old Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani the relief was obvious.
For a week the teenager from Saudi Arabia had been the focus of an international culture clash that threatened to spark a diplomatic incident at the London Olympics and derail her chances at competing in judo.
The Saudi delegation demanded that she wear a hijab, something the International Judo Federation wouldn’t allow because of safety concerns. The incident put the International Olympic Committee in a quandary. The IOC had pushed Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf nations, to include women on its Olympic team for the first time and now it had to moderate a dispute about what those women would wear. It took three days of negotiations but in the end the federation allowed Ms. Shahrkhani to compete in a modified hijab.
She got her chance Friday morning lining up against Melissa Mojica of Puerto Rico in the first round. As she entered the ExCel Arena, the crowd gave her a loud welcome and more than 200 reporters crammed in to watch.
It was a mismatch from the start. In one quick move, Ms. Mojica flipped Ms. Shahrkhani on to her back, scoring an ippon or takedown. And that was it. Just 1 minute 22 seconds into the bout, it was over. It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Ms. Mojica outweighs Ms. Shahrkhani by five kilograms and she is ranked 24th in the world. The Saudi had never competed outside her country and didn’t have a black belt, something standard for her opponents. Her only instruction in the sport had come from her father, a judo referee.
She left accompanied by her brother, Hassan Ali Seraj, smiling shyly. She seemed too intimidated to talk to the throng of reporters but offered a few comments to the Olympic broadcaster. “I was scared a lot, because of all the crowd around and lost, because this is the first time,” she said. “I’m excited and proud to be representing my country. Unfortunately I lost but hopefully I’ll do better next time … Hopefully this will be the start of bigger participation for other sports also … Hopefully this is the begin of a new era.”
Everyone claimed victory. The judo federation said it was “happy that she could compete in the best possible conditions.” The IOC called her a “great symbol” who had sent a “great message.” And the Saudis said they were proud. “I think it’s a milestone,” said Hari Kamal Najm, president of the Saudi Judo Federation. “We’re so proud … I think she did extremely well. We are very proud of her.” The hijab? “I don't think this is an issue. The head cover does not make a difference,” he said.
Ms. Mojica too offered her compliments. “It’s very important that every woman in the world has the opportunity to come to the Olympics,” she said, adding that the hijab was not an issue for her.
Ironically at the same time Ms. Shahrkhani and her hijab were making headlines in judo on Friday, across town at the Olympic Stadium roughly half a dozen women were competing in hijabs with no fanfare. Track and field came to terms with the hijab years ago and on Friday a steady stream of athletes competed in the head scarfs for countries such as Libya, Iraq, Jordan, Oman, Yemen, Qatar and Afghanistan.
In three of the four women’s 100-metre heats at the Olympic Stadium, at least one competitor was wearing a version of the hijab.Yemeni sprinter Fatima Sulaiman Dahman, the only woman competing for her country at the Games, acknowledged the symbolic importance of her accomplishment as it relates to other young women in her country.
“It's very important for me, for all the girls like me,” said the 19-year-old Ms. Dahman, who wore a black hijab, loose-fitting tights and a long-sleeved shirt.
The lot of the female track athlete in some Muslim countries isn’t always easy – Ms. Dahman is made to train inside; it’s not generally possible to run out of doors until after dark.
Though she is a 400-metre specialist – and ran the distance at the last world championships – Ms. Dahman posted a decent time in the 100-metres, running it in 13.95 seconds.
“Thanks to God, I do all my best,” she said.
Another runner, Noor Hussain Al-Malki of Qatar, pulled a hamstring in her heat, while Shinoona Salah Al-Habsi of Oman ran a quick 12.45 seconds and narrowly missed advancing to the next round.
The fourth headscarf-wearing sprinter, Tahmina Kohistani of Afghanistan, ran a personal best 14.42 seconds, and though that was the slowest time among the qualifiers, the result wasn’t really the point – lining up on the start line was.
As it was for Somalian middle-distance runner Zamzam Mohamed Farah, who competed in the 400-metre heats, finishing dead last.
The field for that event also included Maziah Mahusin, the first woman to ever represent the Muslim sultanate of Brunei. The 80,000 fans in attendance gave her a warm hand as she crossed the finish line in a national record time.