Following her loss to Puerto Rico’s Melissa Mojica, Shaherkani declined to address the throng of reporters who jostled and shoved to get within earshot of whatever she might say. Later, in a more controlled setting, Shaherkani said she hoped her participation would signal “a new era.” She also said the large crowd had scared her, as had the pressure of competing publicly for the first time.
“I am very excited, and it was the opportunity of a lifetime,” Shaherkani said, according to translated quotes provided by Olympic officials. “Certainly the Saudi judo federation are delighted that I’ve been able to come here. Hopefully this will be the start of bigger participation for other sports also. Hopefully this is the begin [sic] of a new era.”
Shaherkani is far from a typical Olympian. She had never traveled outside Saudi Arabia before coming to London. She had never competed publicly, taught the sport by her father, a judoka and judo official himself, in the privacy of their home.
And after marching in the Games’ Opening Ceremonies several paces behind Saudi Arabia’s male athletes, Shaherkani disappeared from view, training in an undisclosed location with her father and brother, forbidden from mixing with men during her time at the Games.
The mere idea of her participation outraged hard-line clerics and conservatives in the Islamic kingdom. Numerous online posts reportedly refer to her as “an Olympic whore.”
It was clear from the outset of Friday’s match that Shaherkani, a home-schooled blue belt, wasn’t sufficiently skilled to compete against Olympic black belts.
“I think she have talent, but she is not prepared for that kind of competition,” said Poland’s Urszula Sadkowska, 28, who has trained for 16 years. “It’s good she is here. But it’s too small preparation.”
Mojica, her opponent, said she sensed insecurity in their brief match. “I didn’t make her any favors, but I waited for the right moment,” Mojica said of her winning move.
Shaherkani’s participation in London, along with that of fellow Saudi Sarah Attar, a U.S.-based runner who’ll compete in the 800 meters next week, has been hailed as a diplomatic coup by the International Olympic Committee, which pressed all competing nations to include at least one woman on their teams.
The three that had historically refused — Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar — relented.
But on the eve of the Games, Shaherkani’s participation was thrown into jeopardy anew when the International Judo Federation announced that she couldn’t compete wearing a hijab, or headscarf, citing safety concerns.