17-year-old Noor al-Malki is first female Qatari Olympian

by Tolu Orekoya

The 2012 London Olympics will be the first time ever that the women to men ratio will be split down the middle, 50/50. It is important for athletics that women are widely represented across the board, and most countries send a few female athletes. The Beijing, China Olympics came close, with 42% of athletes being female, and there were only three countries that did not send women to the Olympics on religious grounds; Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Brunei.

Qatar is trying to change and for the first time is sending athletes to compete. Nothing about the dimunitive Noor al-Malki particularly screams “short distance sprinter”: she’s a pint-sized 1.52 metres, and lacks the build and weight of her would-be competitors, weighing a little under 45kg. While others will be attempting to beat the world Florence Griffith-Joyner’s ( the great Flo Jo)  record of 10.26 seconds, 17-year-old al-Malki’s 100m sprint time is 13 seconds, leaving her far behind in the pack.

Still, she is the first of three women from the Islamic country to get special dispensation from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to compete, at this year’s London Olympics. Qatar is also sending Nada Arkaji, 17, a swimmer, and a rifle shooter, Bahia al-Hamad, 19.

In a country where no other women have gone to the Olympics before, role models are hard to come by for al-Malki and her other female counterparts, according to The Guardian.

For the more cynical, a connecting line could be drawn between Qatar’s Olympic bid hopes and its inclusion of women in its London 2012 delegation. Few countries would support a bid from a country that did not support its own female athletes, and the Qatari bid is being seen as a bid for the Middle East as a region. Saudi Arabia is throwing a spanner in the works and remains the lone country that refuses to send female athletes t0 the games.

From The Guardian:

Brunei’s Olympic committee has confirmed a 400m hurdler, Maziah Mahusin, as part of its 2012 team. That leaves Saudi Arabia, which is refusing to follow suit. Prince Nawaf Faisal, head of the Saudi Olympic committee, bluntly said: “At present, we are not embracing any female Saudi participation in the Olympics or other international championships.”

Bizarrely, the Saudi position seemed to be that women were free to compete in London, but would not receive endorsement or support from their national governing body. It was a gesture towards equality, only with the caveat that anyone who took advantage of it could expect severe discrimination.

“If the International Olympic Committee was looking for an official affirmation of Saudi discrimination against women in sport, the minister in charge [Faisal] just gave it,” said a Human Rights Watch spokesman, Christoph Wilcke. “It is impossible to square Saudi discrimination against women with the noble values of the Olympic charter.”

The IOC, itself, has less than a stellar record when  it comes to female participation,  and it was not until 1972 that women began competing in distances over 800m; before then, it was thought long distance running was too difficult for women.

For the young athlete however, those are not her concerns. All of this is a big deal and something she hopes to inspire other young girls to do the same.

She started sprinting in school competitions in 2008, and was spotted by the national coach, who invited her to train at a Qatar’s high performance centre for women’s sport, founded in 2007. “He showed me that there is a way to warm up, a way to start, and a way to stop. He showed me the ABCs of sprinting.”

She is one of 50 athletes who train there. “Having a dedicated centre tells girls like me that we have done a good job and we deserve to have special treatment,” she said. “It gives us hope and motivation.” Noor says many people are surprised when they find out what she does. “Traditionally sport is not for women in an area like this. It is not common to see a female champion.”

That is changing. In 2011, 3,000 Qatari girls competed in the country’s school Olympic programme.

But then Noor is not in it for a medal. Her aims are less tangible, more ambitious. “I could not believe it when they told me I was going to the Olympics,” she said. “It was a shock, but it was also a source of immense happiness and pride. It is the dream of every athlete in Qatar, and I will be taking that with me. I am nervous, but I try to overcome that by focusing on the fact that I am going for a specific reason, which is to represent Qatari women, and to encourage more women to get into sport.

“I want to show people that Qatari women take sport seriously. Regardless of any specific country or region I want the whole world to understand that sports is something, where you can show your talent. Whether you are a boy or a girl, if you don’t practise sport then there is something missing in your life.”

Source: The UK Guardian 

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