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A video of the women’s 400-meter hurdle finals from the 1984 Olympics shows a tiny person with a shock of black hair powering ahead of the others. With legs like pistons, she seems to glide above the track, effortlessly clearing the hurdles in her path. In her country, Morocco, they call her “the black gazelle.”
As she crosses the finish line, she looks all the way to her left and then to her right as if to confirm she is indeed the winner. Then Nawal El Moutawakel begins to cry. She seems dizzy; a competitor reaches out to steady her. Two other competitors, both more than a head taller, embrace her in celebration. (Watch the original 1984 Olympic film produced by Bud Greenspan.)
El Moutawakel’s victory was a surprise to most—running the event in 54.61 seconds, she beat her personal best by 0.76 seconds. But in that moment, the enormity of her accomplishment weighed down her tiny 5-foot-3 frame. The win wasn’t just for herself or even for her country; as the first woman from a Muslim nation to win an Olympic gold medal, she smashed stereotypes and proved human potential is limitless, even for women.
“When I would wake up in the morning I would say, I need to do this for the women of Arab states, African countries, Muslim women, because if I do it, I don’t see why others can’t do it,” she says.
Morocco, which gained independence from France in 1956, is among the most progressive of the Muslim countries. El Moutawakel, now 49, did not endure the same kind of oppression as many Arab women. She wasn’t required to shield her face or body from public view, as her mother once had done, and as her grandmother had done her entire life.
Yet the expectation for El Moutawakel, like other young Muslim women in her country, was that her primary role was to be a wife and mother. So, before she went with her brother to a track club in Casablanca, she had to do housework.
That changed after Moroccan sports officials invited her to train with the national team. El Moutawakel’s father said the chores could wait, and his encouragement made all the difference.
“We could have had many great female athletes in Morocco if the environment let them,” El Moutawakel told a Chicago Tribune reporter in 1987. “Most start at 13 and step out of sports at 18 because they are told it is not something for girls to keep doing.”
El Moutawakel actually got a relatively late start in sports. “I was 15 years old,” she says. “Kids usually start when they are much younger but I was a very energetic young girl and my parents wanted to do something with me so they put my energy in sports.”
After her first Moroccan track championship in 1981, her father set goals for her, each one leading to a bigger one: African champion, Olympic champion. “Aim far and high,” she recalls him saying.
El Moutawakel initially competed in a variety of track and field events. By 1982, she was finding her strengths and became African champion in the 100-meter high hurdles. A coach suggested she might do better at a new event, the 400-meter intermediate hurdles.
At the 1983 world championships, she failed to make the finals, but came away with something more important: the attention of Iowa State University coaches. After the championships, El Moutawakel received a mysterious packet from Iowa State. She had a friend translate the documents written in English, which offered a full scholarship.
El Moutawakel was afraid to tell her parents about the offer. When she did, her father said he had to think it over. Seconds later, he said, “You will go.”
The decision prompted criticism from others in Morocco who said Nawal should stay there. But Mohamed El Moutawakel was adamant that his daughter receive a good education and get her best shot at the Olympics.
The next summer, she would stand on the podium in Los Angeles, accepting the gold medal as tears streamed down her face. She was an instant celebrity; Morocco’s king called with congratulations and later declared that all girls born on that date should be named after her. Women throughout the Muslim world wrote and called to urge El Moutawakel to continue winning for them.
But Mohamed El Moutawakel would not share in his daughter’s glory. A week after she left for college, he was killed in a car crash.
There would be other challenges ahead for El Moutawakel after the Olympics; a slow recovery from surgery to repair an old injury kept her from running her best in 1985, and in the fall of that year, her two coaches and three other Iowa State athletes died in a plane crash on their way back from a cross-country meet.
Today, El Moutawakel refers only metaphorically to the challenges and heartbreaks she has faced. “To me [the 400-meter hurdles] are the school of life because it has a start, it has a finish and it has 10 barriers,” El Moutawakel says. “For me you run, you jump, sometimes you fall, sometimes you overcome, sometimes you succeed, sometimes you fail, but it’s really a teaching lesson.”
Though she never won another Olympic medal, she has worked through the International Olympic Committee and as Morocco’s minister for youth and sports to provide access to sports and opportunities for all. Her efforts have had resounding impact.
Since she won the gold medal in 1984, Muslim women from around the world have competed in the Olympics and won medals. El Moutawakel has closely followed the careers of many, including Ruqaya Al Ghasara, a Bahraini woman who defied Muslim fundamentalists in 2004 when she competed in the Athens games and became the first female athlete to wear a full hijab at the Olympics.
She’s also seen improved opportunities for women. “Now in my country, whenever there’s an Olympic gold medal or a world championship, the money given to the men is equal to the money given to the women,” she says. “This is a very strong progress that’s been made in our country.”
In addition to pushing for more women members of the IOC board, El Moutawakel does what she can on her own to encourage women in sports. In 1993, she started a women’s 5K road race, the Courir Pour Le Plaisir (Run for Fun) in Casablanca as a casual way for women of all ages to get out and walk, run, chat and connect. She hoped for a few hundred participants, but within a few years more than 30,000 women were participating. The race is now the largest women’s race held in a Muslim country.
“I really felt when I saw all of those women, that you can as a woman have an energy that can be radiated around you and have a positive impact on women who most of the time think they are not allowed to compete, that they cannot do it because they’re women,” El Moutawakel says.
She also works to get more kids involved in sports, but acknowledges two challenges: massive funding cuts that limit their access, as well as greater competition from technology for their attention.
“We need to get them involved at a young age because you have kids like mine spending more than 10, 15, 20 hours in front of their computer, with their iPad, with their telephone chatting with their friends, and this will lead to problems of obesity,” she says. “We need to do something about this. In the past people used to die of hunger, but today people will die of overeating and obesity.”
El Moutawakel, who felt her responsibility as an athlete and role model early on, believes other athletes also need to step up. “It’s the love of sport rather than competing—that’s the message that needs to be spread around to everyone.”
El Moutawakel expects increasing numbers of Muslim women to participate in sports. “You may not have expected me to win in 1984—I didn’t expect me to win in 1984—but I think the future will be certain and you will see more and more athletes coming from this part of the world,” she says.
“I always say the future of this region is women, and I really have a strong belief in that. I don’t think women have expressed the highest level yet in sports.”