lunes, 9 de enero de 2012

Nawal El Moutawakel: "Aim Far and High"

"I chose the 400m hurdles as the event constitutes a lesson in life. For me it is a school of life. There are ten barriers around one track and you learn to get over each of these during the course of the race.  Sometimes you fall, but you pick yourself up, dust yourself and continue running this circle of life. In life challenges are always there. You never find a red carpet waiting for you." (1)  


Nawal El Moutawakel becomes the first Moroccan Olympic
 champion ever, in 1984, in Los Angeles

Nawal El Moutawakel is no less than an icon of our time. As she won the 400-meter hurdles at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, she became the first Moroccan Olympic gold medallist in history and at the same time the first African, Muslim and Arabic woman who had accomplished such goal. This largely unexpected victory converted that tiny young girl in a role model and symbol of freedom for every North African and Middle Eastern female of her generation. Every one wanted to be like that Moroccan champion who had proved success in life was possible if you believe in yourself and fight for your dream. El Moutawakel had a brief athletics career: we can say only that famous race. However, after retirement, she proved her grandeur continuing that mission she had begun in Los Angeles, almost by coincidence. As a member of the Moroccan Department of Youth and Sport and working inside the IAAF and the IOC she has devoted her life in endeavour to improve the conditions of Arabic and African girls and, in general, children of poor background, through the practise of the sport. 
Nawal El Moutawakel was born the 15th April 1962 in the outskirts of Casablanca. Since being a little kid, she stunned for her running skills. Her father used to set races near the beach, where Nawal always got to beat brothers and cousins. Then as she went to school she kept winning effortlessly over every boy around. One day she joined an athletic club in Casablanca. She was 15 at the time, perhaps a little late to start practising sport seriously; especially in a country, where girls get married very young and, as they do, they are supposed to give up sport and any other teen distraction to become good wives for their husbands and good mothers for their sons. Most fathers in Morocco would have been shamed of having a daughter running in shorts among the boys, but Mohamed El Moutawakel was not most fathers. (2) He was instead an open minded and tolerant man, maybe as a result of being often in contact with French people. Mohamed would talk to his children largely about the different education and values French had and would listen attentively to Nawal’s tales about how people from other societies she met in her trips lived. He used to drive her daughter every day to the stadium for training (3) and would encourage her to become someone extraordinary: “always aim far and high.” (4) Mohamed had a high opinion of Nawal: he believed one day she would be famous and would bring honour to her family. And she really did!
Since she was 17, Nawal represented Morocco in international competitions. In spite of being a girl she was the first member of the family travelling abroad. She was selected to represent Africa for the 1981 World Cup, held in Rome, at the 100m event. Yet her French coach Jean François Coquand realised the event which suited her best was the 400m hurdles. (5) Some argued Nawal was too small to succeed in a specialty with obstacles but the coach was proved right in the end. Her first victory of note came just some months afterwards at the African Games in El Cairo and by 1983 she already belonged to the elite of the 400m hurdles. That year she won the Mediterranean Games, held at home, and reached the semi-finals at the inaugural World championships in Helsinki, after winning her heat. It was considered a huge success in her home country. However, Nawal and her father felt that staying in Morocco the athlete would never be able to fulfil all her potential. The young girl had a chat in Helsinki with Sunday Uti, who was studying in Iowa University, and the Nigerian quarter miler promised to recommend her for a scholarship in his own College.
Nawal El Moutawakel in the United States
when she was a student in Iowa State University
      Soon the Moutawakel received a parcel with an application form from the USA. Nawal and her family knew little English and it was needed a translator to register the girl to study Physical education and Physiotherapy in Iowa. (6) Despite knowing it was the best for her daughter, it was not easy for Mohamed to let her go and Nawal was crying during the whole trip, hoping the plane would eventually turn back. She arrived to Des Moines Airport on a January afternoon of 1984. A woman was waiting for her, bearing a sign, with the Moroccan hurdler’s picture and name. (2) She drove her to Ames, where they met her future coaches Pat Moynihan and Ron Renko. For a lucky coincidence, Moynihan, a former hammer thrower, spoke Nawal’s language, which he had learned as he was a long distance track and field coach in Saudi Arabia for a year. Being also acquainted with the Muslim culture, Pat knew how to behave in front of the shy newcomer (“I knew what not to do”), and so became a priceless support for Nawal’s integration in America
 Nevertheless, a tragedy had taken place back home: Mohamed El Moutawakel died in a car accident just 8 days after her daughter had left. Her oldest brother went to Iowa to communicate Nawal the sad news and bring her back to Morocco. However the athlete refused to move from Iowa arguing she wanted to achieve her father’s dreams for her: go to school in America and get to the top in athletics. (2) Moynihan and Renko travelled to Venice Beach, California, training Nawal away from the other athletes, in order to recover her mentally. The hurdler improved quickly, grabbing the NCAA title with a new championship record. Meanwhile Moroccan officials kept the pressure on her. The same King Hassan II told the Iowa student he expected her to win no less than the gold medal at the Olympic Games.

In a Moroccan delegation for the Olympics of 126 people, among athletes, coaches and officials, Nawal el Moutawakel was the only woman. She could feel intimidated but could not let down her family, her country and all the people who expected her doing great. She remembered again her missed father words: “Aim far and high.” He had said that after she thought it was too hard for her to shine at the 1982 African Games. As Nawal won two gold medals in that contest, Mohamed told her it was time to target an Olympic victory. The Moroccan teen could not believe she could have a chance against such strong women from all over the world but her father repeated one more time: “always aim far and high."
After her successful first year living abroad, meeting many interesting people in the USA and winning the NCAA championships for the Iowa Cyclons, her confidence had increased. Due to the boycott many of the most outstanding athletes in the world did not make the trip to Los Angeles. The 400m hurdles event, which was held for the first time at the Olympic Games, was particularly affected, because the specialty had been dominated by the Soviet Union and East Germany since its inclusion in the athletic calendar. None of the five best women at the precedent year World championships, as the gold medallist Yekaterina Fesenko and runner-up Anna Ambraziene, were at the Games. Neither was world record holder Margarita Ponomaryova. Notwithstanding El Moutawakel had fearsome rivals as the reigning European champion Ann-Louise Skoglund from Sweden and the winner at the American trials and main favourite Judi Brown, a friend of Nawal’s. In the final there were also rising athletes as Sandra Farmer-Patrick and Debbie Flintoff from Australia, the future winner in the next edition of the Games in Seoul. Skoglund and Indian P.T. Usha had dominated the semi-finals, with El Moutawakel third at the first heat, but the decisive race was another thing.

Nawal El Moutawakel celebrates her Olympic victory
           Right from the start the girl from Casablanca took the lead. Competing flawlessly over the barriers, she increased the gap progressively over the rest of the field. In spite of slowing a little in the homestretch, Nawal was never challenged, romping home in 54.61, a new African record. More than half a second afterwards crossed the line Judi Brown and Romanian Cristeana Cojocaru. Usha’s last effort was not enough to reach the first medal ever for her country, which she lost by only 1 hundredth of a second. The two other American residents, Brown and Farmer came to congratulate El Moutawakel and the three of them threw their arms around each other emotively. The Moroccan girl and Brown started crying together, until someone gave Nawal a Moroccan flag to make the lap of honour. Three days afterwards, Said Aouita also won the gold medal for his country at the 5000m. El Moutawakel was received like a queen in the airport by her countrymen. In Casablanca, people celebrated in the street for several days and also inside Nawal’s house to the point they had to call the police to finally get to sleep. Hassan II gave the Olympic champion a warm welcome and he decided to the girls born in that glorious day would be named after her. An intercity train was also called “the Nawal”, because it was almost as speedy as she was. 
           All of a sudden, Nawal El Moutawakel had become a national hero and a Pan-Arab idol for the women. Yet she was just a young female with a humble background, who had trained hard to achieve some success in sport. She did not know how to manage that unexpected popularity, what to say and how to behave before the avalanche of letters from women who said they wanted to be like her and questions from journalists which had nothing to do with athletics: “I feel a big responsibility as the Arab press tell me things as ‘how do you feel now that you are a symbol. You have saved Arabic women. Arabic women used to be in jail. Now that you won, it is going to allow them to come out and work out and race. How do you feel?’ I do not know what I should say. They ask me political questions. I just do not know what to answer. I said, 'Hey, all this stuff is not for me.' I understand nothing from politics. I do not know what I should do to make the women free in this world, the Arabic women. All I know is that the obstacles I jump are true for me, the hurdles. I can touch them. They are concrete. I can jump them; I know that it is true." (2)  
            One thing El Moutawakel knew was she wanted badly to break the World record. She had trained properly just for two years and had plenty of room to improve. Yet in the beginning of 1985 her knee got injured. It came actually from a fall she had from a mountain slope as she was six but had never prevented Nawal from running until that winter. In spite in the US had argued surgery was not necessary, King Hassan II wanted to keep in good health his national treasure and sent her to his personal doctor in Paris. The athlete was operated in mid-January. Still she could reappear during the year and clock a respectable 55.11, the second best mark of her career.
           Notwithstanding, a second tragedy took place less than two years after her father’s death in a car accident: the plane carrying Moynihan and Renko, along with three athletes, back from the NCAA women cross country, crashed and all the passengers were killed. It was a big shock for Nawal, who was so grateful to her coaches for all they had done for her in Iowa. All her 1986 season was ruined because of fatality. Meanwhile, the Moroccan press was increasingly pressuring her, insensible to her ill mood: “Les chiens aboient, et la caravane passe” was quoted the angry Nawal (7) Said Aouita was breaking every record but, on the other hand, the other country star was not progressing anymore. Marina Stepanova had lowered the world best below the 53sec barrier, while El Moutawakel had still not run under 54sec. Then she started working with Danny Harris’ coach Steve Lynn and again with Coquand to recover the time lost. In 1987 she won some Grand Prix meetings, the Universiade and defended her Mediterranean Games title but at the World championships she ran poorly and did not go through the heats. Besides she was now suffering from her back. After think it over El Moutawakel opted for retirement, without even trying to defend her Olympic title.          

             Nevertheless the seed had already been spread. As the 1984 Olympic champion said, "no woman wanted to do the dishes anymore." Nawal El Moutawakel had opened the door for every future Arabic and Muslim sportswoman, though things were still far from easy for them. In the next decade Algerian Hassiba Boulmerka in Barcelona 1992, and Syrian Ghada Shouaa in Seoul 1996 won the first gold medal ever for their respective countries at the Olympic Games. Both also became world champions. Boulmerka, still the African record holder at the 1500m with 3:55.30, refused to wear the hijab on the track, in spite of receiving dead threats from Muslim fundamentalists of her country. She even had to move to France for security reasons. Her victories came in the beginning of Civil War and conservative reaction in Algeria, which tried to expel women from University and forbid them to practise sport. (8)

Ghada Shouaa in a press conference back in 1996
Elsewhere, Shouaa became a world class athlete with huge sacrifices and little economic support, in a country where facilities are almost unplayable. It would had not been possible without the help of Latvian Paris Votes, who she refers as an outstanding coach who prepared her meticulously to become a champion in the heptathlon, as well as a spiritual mentor in life, who formed her personality. After her Olympic victory the Syrian athlete was received as a hero by her countrymen but soon after she suffered a severe back injury. Ignored by athletic authorities, she had to remain at home for 72 days, without being given the required treatment. Finally, the President Bashar Al-Assad sent her to Germany to undergo surgery. “Without him I would have been crippled by now.” (9) After a long and miraculous recovery Shouaa was able to win an excellent bronze medal at the 1999 World Championships but in her country it was considered a failure, and she was treated “as if I had been doing tourism in Germany.” (9) After a new accident, she retired from sport. Today she speaks bitterly about how her achievements have been recognised and awarded everywhere in the world except in her own country. She also said something about unattractive female runners for Arabic male audience. With a score of 6942 from a victory in Gotzis, Ghada Shouaa still ranks 6th in the heptathlon all-time list. As today she is the only Syrian who has accomplished an Olympic gold medal.   
At her same 400m hurdles event, Nawal El Moutawakel found a worthy heir in Nezha Bidouane. The Rabat-born hurdler enjoyed the long and consistent athletic career El Moutawakel could not have. Bidouane won gold at the 1997 and 2001 World Championships and narrowly lost to Cuban Daimí Pernía in 1999, in one of the most thrilling endings in a track race in history, where she clocked 52.90, which stands as the African record in the event. She also won a bronze medal at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sidney, in spite of an illness. Bidouane is largely seen, technically speaking, as one of the best intermediate hurdlers in history. (10)   

Nezha Bidouane competing at the 1997 World Championships

            Nawal El Moutawakel graduated in Physical Education and Physiotherapy in 1988. She enjoyed her five years in Iowa, though she decided not to settle in the United States and went back to Morocco as she ended her studies. One reason was there were some aspects of American civilisation she did not like at all: “American life is too fast, all business and materialism. I cannot understand how married couple can be split between jobs in California and New York, how people live from one phone call to the next, how no one wants to waste a minute. Maybe in 100 or 200 years Morocco will be like that.” (7) The second reason was she wanted to return to her country to be of help for her people. As an athlete she had contributed with the example of her Olympic victory to the liberation of Moslem women or rather, as she pointed with irony, of Moslem men, “who were forced to meditate on my ability.” (7) Now she wanted to commit herself further in this mission.
Nawal got married to Mounir Bennis and they had two children, Zineb and Ròda. At her return to Casablanca she was appointed Inspector of the Ministry of Sport and Youth and then became national coach in sprints and hurdles for both men and women. She promoted to the post of Secretary of State in 1997 and finally was put in charge of the Ministry of Youth and Sport in 2007. That same year she was elected vice-president of the Moroccan Athletics Federation. Besides she is president and founder of the Moroccan Association of Sport and Development. At international level, El Moutawakel is a member of the IAAF Committee since 1995 and also entered the IOC in 1998. She directed the IOC Evaluation Commission for the 2012 Olympic Games, which chose London, and was renewed in her task for 2016, inspecting among other candidatures Chicago, in a quick visit to the country she used to live as a young student, in very different circumstances.
El Moutawakel realised as she was an athlete how important was sport in developing her personality. Based in this experience she has been engaged in promoting the practise of sport among women, as a vehicle to empower their self-esteem, confidence and independence so they have the resources to continue their education, instead of following the traditional pattern of leaving school in their mid-eighties and later entering arranged marriages. (11) For this purpose, first of all they have to overcome inner psychological barriers and trust themselves to build a new self-consciousness. It can help not only women but youth and Third World people, in general. Impossible does not exist. In the same way she grew a role model thanks to athletics, everybody can get a similar rise from zero to hero.     
Nawal explains in this interesting fashion all the good consequences of embracing sport: 
“Sport is a great tool for empowering women and young girls because it provides many opportunities for developing character and personality as well as opportunities for good physical health needed to overcome challenges and difficulties. Sport also provides positive feedback, enjoyment and accomplishment. It provides sensations of reward through winning, team spirit and applause for success. It enables you to learn from losing as well. Sport also combines physical and mental abilities and teaches leadership skills, self-respect and decision-making. Historically sport is an important part of our society and by allowing women and young girls to participate in this activity, which is often seen as very male, they begin to feel on a more equal level with men. It also provides a great community for women to come together and demonstrate their strengths and skills.” (12)

Nawal El Moutawakel in a visit to Addington Primary School in Durban, South Africa 
  One of Nawal El Moutawakel’s most popular initiatives through her work at the Ministry of Youth and Sport was to create in Casablanca an all-women 10km race in 1993, called “Courir pour le Plaisir” (Run for Fun), which is currently the largest manifestation of its kind in Africa. It has grown from 2000 runners in its first edition to nearly 30.000 recently, including also international running stars. Inspired by Nawal, another former Moroccan champion Nezha Bidouane organises annually a similar race in Rabat. Searching further social development through running, El Moutawakel launched a parallel pilot project, “Courir pour la Vie” in 2007 at Imam Mouslim High School, in the small village of Ben Abid, in partnership with Laureus Sport for Good Foundation and the Regional Academy of National Education in Casablanca. Nawal is the vice-chair of the Laureus Foundation, which under the direction of Edwin Moses has supported financially more than 50 projects worldwide, improving the lives of more than 150.000 children. In Casablanca, the project involved 180 rural girls from 12 to 15 years old, who took part for five months in an innovative sport and social programme, combining basketball, volleyball and football, alongside citizenship activities, including subjects such as women’s health, hygiene and nutrition. In words of El Moutawakel, the girls changed completely, gaining in self-esteem and at the same time the whole community was galvanised: the school had been repainted and services and facilities had been added: permanent water, electricity, basketball court, volleyball nets and poles. (11) In the end, the 180 girls were introduced to the “Run for Fun” annual race. It was followed by a nationwide scheme, launched by the Moroccan Sport and Development Association in successive years, impacting the lives of more than 20.000 girls. 
Currently, women are incorporated to sport in nearly same numbers than men in Morocco and receive identical amount of money in prices. However, El Moutawakel resents there are very few female in the country assuming jobs of responsibility as coaches, officials or managers. She is fighting against this lack, opting herself to all kind of administrative positions. It is not only happening in the Arabic countries but in the most prestigious worldwide institutions. The former hurdler was the first female elected to be part of the IAAF Committee in more than 80 years of history. 
She is also breaking barriers into the IOC, which has always moved around the interests of European and North American business men, massively represented in the association. (13) Even Baron Pierre de Coubertin was an aristocrat opposed to the presence of women in sport, but lately new members are giving a new image to the Century-old IOC. They come from poor countries and some of them are women athletes, as Nawal el Moutawakel and also Hassiba Boulmerka, who survived those difficult times and now is struggling for the rights of nowadays Algerian female runners. There is a rigid hierarchy inside the Committee and newcomers are expected to be quite, listening to the experienced older members. However El Moutawakel is not the one who sits comfortably and cashes at the end of the month her salary without more implication. Her voice was heard since the very first day: calm and polite but persistent; and her determined attitude and cleverness has gained her the solid position she holds nowadays inside the IOC. When the Qatari Federation asked for a major track meet, the newly-minted Moroccan representative quickly negotiated a deal, allowing the meet only in case they loosened their policies which prohibited women to compete before male audiences and even attend sportive events. Not so long time ago, Nawal was brandishing the Koran, reciting stories of how the prophet Muhammad was competing against his wife in archery, swimming and horseback riding, to prove no religious law said women should stay at home while her husband was playing sport. The battle is long and difficult but Nawal El Moutawakel is patient and strong. One day the world shall belong to Muslim women.        

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