Wojdan Shaherkani’s debut at the 2012 London Olympics lasted just 82 seconds, but she generated worldwide attention reserved for the most accomplished athletes.
Arguably, she might have accomplished just as much.
The 16-year-old judo athlete lost to Puerto Rico’s Melissa Mojica in the opening round of the 78-kilogram category.
Wearing an improvised Islamic hijab (head scarf), Shaherkani looked uncomfortable and overwhelmed by the Olympic stage, which isn’t surprising considering she isn’t a black belt and had never competed internationally.
Mojica threw Shaherkani to the mat for a quick win.
They stood quickly, Shaherkani checked her hijab and they shook hands to generous applause from the crowd.
Crowds of reporters clamored for Shaherkani's comments afterward.
“I was afraid when I came out into the arena but I was happy when I heard the cheering,” she said, according to Reuters.
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Shaherkani is the first female athlete to compete for Saudi Arabia.
She was a last-minute addition to the team after the International Olympic Committee pressured all nations to include women.
Then, once she arrived, more negotiations were required to settle on a head covering.
Further to a Saudi edict, government officials asked Shaherkani’s father to accompany her wherever she went in London.
Alla al Mizyen, 22, watched the match on TV in Jeddah.
A basketball player, she said Saudi girls should feel emboldened by Shaherkani’s accomplishment.
“It’s going to give hope to so many young women,” she told The Wall Street Journal. “No, I can do this, and not only that, but I can go to a global platform like the Olympics.”
Others worry about Shaherkani’s safety when she returns home.
Some suggest she will face criticism, while others say Saudis will ostracize her.
“She will definitely face difficulties,” Saudi journalist Hashem Abdo Hashem said, according to The Associated Press. “The society here will look at her negatively.”
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