First Ever Female Saudi Olympian Competes in London 2012 Games

PHOTO: Wojdan Shaherkani, Saudi Arabias first ever female athlete to compete in the Olympics, is shown during her judo match, Aug. 3, 2012.
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Girls are not allowed in physical education classes in Saudi Arabia. They are not allowed to play in sports clubs -- or even walk through the clubs' front doors.

But none of that stopped Wojdan Shahrkhani from making history this morning when she became the first ever female Saudi Olympian.

Never mind that the 16-year-old looked shaky and unsure in her first judo bout, which she lost in just 82 seconds. Never mind that she left the mat without bowing, as is customary after matches, and needed to be reminded to do so.

She competed. And that means in defeat, she was victorious -- both for her deeply conservative homeland and for the Olympics itself.

At the 1996 Atlanta Games, 26 countries had no female participants. Only 16 years later, this is the first Olympics where every team has women -- and where women will compete in all 26 sports. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei were the last holdouts.

"This is a major boost for gender equality," said IOC President Jacques Rogge, who has described Shahrkhani as a "symbol" of progress.

In her home country, Shahrkhani's participation has been hotly debated and was not guaranteed. She and her fellow female Olympian Sarah Attar have been labeled "Olympic whores" online.

"Sports should be first and foremost for men. Women should follow," argued Saudi Cleric Ahmad Al-Mu'abi during a recently televised debate, according to a clip posted by the pro-Israeli media monitoring firm, Memri. "It is in women's nature to keep themselves covered up. Whoever thinks that we restrict women is wrong. The woman is a hidden gem. Anybody who has a gem tries to protect it, so that nobody sees it or covets it."

But today, even after losing quickly, she received support online.

"I'll walk out later with the Saudi flag around my neck & my head up high as if we won the biggest gold medal in the history of the Olympics," wrote a Saudi-born man who has a blog called Saudi Root, according to the Associated Press.

Shaherkani is here not because she met the qualifying standard for participation, but because the IOC facilitates participation by underrepresented countries. Whereas her competitors are black belts, she is a mere blue belt.

"They are champions she is fighting, and my daughter, for her it is the first competition," her father, who is also her coach, said in the arena today.

During the bout, Shaherkani seemed overly cautious and did not try to grab the uniform of her opponent, Puerto Rican Melissa Mojica. The two heavyweights circled for a minute before Mojica grabbed Shahrkhani's collar and flipped her over. The match was over in just over a minute.

Initially, the International Judo Federation prohibited Shahrkhani from covering her head with a hijab, saying it could put her in danger if her opponent grabbed it. Her father threatened to remove her from competition, and the two sides agreed on a "safety cap," similar to a skull cap.

Today, Shaherkani's opponent said the cap presented no trouble during the match. "There was no problem at all with the hijab," Mojica said, according to the Associated Press. "I think everyone has a right to their religion and to be given an opportunity."

The second ever female Saudi athlete, Sarah Attar, will compete in the 800m on August 8.

Shaherkani's participation is part of a series of small but significant reforms pushed by the conservative kingdom's King Abdullah. Starting in 2015, women will be able to run and vote in municipal elections. And for the first time, men and women will study together when a new university near Jiddah opens.

Shaherkani suggested per presence at the Olympics could help push those reforms along.

"I am happy to be at the Olympics," she told reporters, practically whispering. "Unfortunately, we did not win a medal, but in the future we will, and I will be a star for women's participation."

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