Sunday, February 18, 2018
Sports

Gary Shelton at the Games: Judo athlete Wojdan Shahrkhani became the first female from Saudi Arabia to compete in the Olympics

LONDON — Some first steps are more painful than others. Some pioneers don't last long enough.

Witness the first halting steps of Wojdan Shahrkhani, a round-faced teenager in over her head. She wore a modified black head scarf — itself a subject of controversy — as she moved across the tatami, slowly approaching history. She bowed slightly toward her opponent, and her eyes were wide from the noise and the lights and the stage.

With her, Shahrkhani took the women of a nation.

She was not very good, and she did not last very long, and 82 seconds after she started, she lay prone in defeat. At this point in her judo career, Shahrkhani is more of a cause than a competitor. She never had a chance; she was at the Olympics only to make sure other women in Saudi Arabia might eventually get one.

History has to change sometime, however. Someone has to endure the insults to stop the indignity.

In this case, it was Shahrkhani, all of 16 years old, trying to change the thinking of a country that has oppressed women for centuries.

Can you imagine the pressure? Back in Saudi Arabia, many do not believe she should be here at all. The "Prostitute of the Olympics," she has been called by her critics. Shameless, say others.

After all, in Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to exercise. Or vote. Or drive. Or leave the house without an escort. Before Friday, the idea of a woman in the Olympics was too jarring for the nation to consider.

Can you imagine her return? Already there have suggestions that many may shun Shahrkhani. She not only competed, she did so in front of men.

Can you imagine the competitors' stares? There are competitors who did not think she was worthy of competing in the Olympics. She had never been in an international competition — for that matter, Shahrkhani had never been outside of her country before arriving in London. The 241-pound Shahrkhani, the daughter of a judo referee, has competed for only two years. She was a blue belt competing with black belts, a beginner against champions.

"I think she should start with some small competitions," said Urszula Sadkowska, a Polish competitor. "The Olympic Games are hard competitions. That was not a good idea to send her here without any preparations."

Eighty-two seconds? Given the circumstances, perhaps she should be proud for lasting that long against Puerto Rico's Melissa Mojica, ranked 24th in the world.

"I was scared a lot, because of the crowd," Shahrkhani said, speaking through an interpreter in the media zone, two barriers away from her questioners. "And (I) lost, because this is the first time. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a new era."

There is nothing new about symbolism in the Olympics, whether it is Jesse Owens running in the face of the Nazis or the closed-fist salutes of two black U.S. sprinters on the medal stand in Mexico City in 1968 or American basketball players refusing to accept silver medals in '72 when they believed they deserved the gold after a controversial loss to the Soviets.

This, too, was an important step. For the first time in Olympic history, every competing nation — 204 — has women. The last three holdouts were Qatar, Brunei and, you guessed it, Saudi Arabia. As recently as 1996, 26 nations had no female competitors.

As Shahrkhani competed, British judo competitor Chris Sherrington looked on from the tunnel. Good, he thought.

"The more the merrier," he said. "Besides, the women are more violent than the men."

It is not the stuff of movies, Olympic judo. It looks a lot more like a form of wrestling than the image most have of the sport. In Shahrkhani's match, the two women moved slowly around each other, Shahrkhani swatting away Mojica's hands as her opponent attempted to take hold of her. The two clenched briefly, and then Mojica grabbed her opponent and tossed her roughly onto the mat.

Shahrkhani lay there for a few seconds. She stood and walked off the mat toward her brother. She was reminded that she had forgotten to bow, and she returned to do that.

After that, she wept. Not from the pain or the defeat, but from relief. It was over. She had broken down a barrier, and she had endured the criticism.

"Hopefully, I'll do better next time," she said. "Hopefully, I'll achieve a medal next time."

Perhaps. But perhaps in that part of the Olympics that means something more than medals, the part that concerns ideals, this was enough.

It was a start.

It was the opening of an era.

It was a 16-year-old girl changing her world, whether it wanted to change or not.

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