Listen to this article
Los Angeles, 1984
Until 1984, no Muslim woman had ever won a gold medal at the Olympic games. All that changed when Moroccan Nawal el-Moutawakel shaved 0.76 seconds from her personal best at the 400m hurdles to beat the favourite. She became not only the first Muslim woman but also the first Moroccan athlete to take gold at the Olympics.
“King Hassan II called me right after I crossed the finish line,” remembers el-Moutawakel. “Someone took me into a special room and said ‘The King is on the phone.’ He said: ‘I am so proud of you. The entire country is going wild. This victory has made us all so happy and proud of you.’ I was speechless. I couldn’t believe he was awake and watching. It was in the early hours in Morocco.” To celebrate, he declared that every girl born that day should be called Nawal.
El-Moutawakel believes her win helped change the lives of thousands of Muslim women across the world. Previously, it was thought women couldn’t do well in sport, but after her triumph athletics became a possibility for a whole generation. In fact, el-Moutawakel became such an iconic figure for Muslim women that she used to receive letters addressed simply: Nawal el-Moutawakel, Morocco. “Women would write to me and thank me for what I did for them through sport. Ladies with and without the veil told me I’d liberated them,” says el-Moutawakel.
Her path into sport was helped by her parents, who insisted their sons and daughters were treated equally. “My father played judo, my mother volleyball and all five of us brothers and sisters did track and field.” el-Moutawakel was a natural at hurdles and in 1983, she caught the attention of Iowa State University coaches, who offered her a scholarship. At first, her father was nervous about letting his 18-year-old daughter move to the USA, but in the end agreed that she should get an education. Just a week after el-Moutawakel left for Iowa, he was killed in a car crash. “No one told me he had died for three months. When I tried to speak to him, they said he was busy or he didn’t want to talk because he wanted me to focus on my training sessions. When I learned he’d died, I was very angry.”
It was eight months after his death that el-Moutawakel won the gold medal. She is now a member of the IOC and secretary of state for sport in Morocco. In 1993 she started Courir pour le plaisir, a 5km run for women in Casablanca that has since become the biggest women’s race held in a Muslim country. Each year, up to 30,000 women run through the streets. “I wanted to bring women outside to feel the power of sports together. It’s like a mini-revolution,” says el-Moutawakel. “I have a very strong belief that sports can impact life forever. My life can be divided into the time before I won gold and the time after. Those 54.61 seconds totally changed my life.”
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published