x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Olympics: Saudi judoka loses the fight but wins over many fans

Defeat in 82 seconds and opponent had no problem with hijab.

Saudi Arabia's Wojdan Shahrkhani, in white, lost to Mojica Melissa of Puerto Rico. Orestis Panagiotou / EPA
Saudi Arabia's Wojdan Shahrkhani, in white, lost to Mojica Melissa of Puerto Rico. Orestis Panagiotou / EPA

Defeat in 82 seconds and opponent had no problem with hijab

Paul Haven

LONDON // It was over in little more than a minute, but it will go down as one of the most memorable moments of the London Games.

A young judo fighter's decisive defeat on the mat yesterday is being hailed as a victory for women in Saudi Arabia, a step that seemed unimaginable not long ago.

Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani was one of just two women competing for Saudi Arabia at the Games, the first time the country has sent female athletes. And she was only able to compete in judo after a compromise between Olympic organisers, the international judo federation and Saudi officials that cleared the way for her to wear a modified hijab.

Even that was unacceptable to some, who said she was dishonouring herself by fighting in front of men, including the male referee and judges.

The crowd roared as Shahrkhani stepped onto the mat for her fight against Puerto Rico's Melissa Mojica wearing judo dress and what appeared to be a tight-fitting black cap.

The drama was not in seeing who would win. In a competition where everyone else holds a high level black belt, Shahrkhani has only attained a blue. Her father, Ali, an international judo referee, summed up the odds his daughter was facing.

"They are champions she is fighting, and my daughter, for her it is the first competition," he said.

Despite only earning a blue belt in the Japanese martial art, Shahrkhani wore a black belt to compete.

On the mat, the Saudi looked tentative and cautious on her feet, unwilling to grab Mojica's uniform and making little attempt to throw her off balance. The two heavyweights circled each other for about a minute before Mojica, the 24th ranked judo fighter in the world in her weight class, grabbed Shahrkhani with a secure grip on her collar and flipped her onto her back, ending the match in 82 seconds.

As she rose to her feet, Shahrkhani gently reached for her head to make sure the hijab was still in place. It was, and the two women bowed to each other and left to a loud ovation.

Afterward, the 18-year-old walked with her father past a scrum of journalists and television cameras.

"I am happy to be at the Olympics," she whispered in Arabic, her father holding both her arms. "Unfortunately, we did not win a medal, but in the future we will and I will be a star for women's participation."

Shahrkhani's opponent had kind words, and said fears the hijab would get in the way, or even be dangerous, were overblown.

"There was no problem at all with the hijab. I think everyone has a right to their religion and to be given an opportunity," Mojica said.

"This is no problem in judo."

* Associated Press