It wasn’t the only accommodation made to achieve the “gender equity” that International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge had sought for the 2012 Games, the first in which women are competing in every sport contested by men.
Because Saudi women have no national or international ranking in sports, the IOC waived its normal Olympic-qualifying requirements and extended invitations for Saudi women to take part.
Still, despite her deficit in judo skills, Shaherkani’s comments revealed a fighter’s heart.
“I’m excited and proud to be representing my country,” she said. “Unfortunately, I lost. But hopefully I’ll do better next time. Hopefully I’ll achieve a medal next time.”
Still, it’s far from clear whether Shaherkani’s historic Olympic debut will rise above the symbolic.
“It is a step in the right direction,” said Christoph Wilcke, the senior Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, in a telephone interview from Jordan. “The question really is whether women in Saudi Arabia will be able to benefit from the symbolism.”
Wilcke is author of a comprehensive study on sports in Saudi Arabia that highlights the adverse health consequences of denying girls and women the chance to participate. Released earlier this year, the report challenged the IOC on human-rights grounds to pressure Saudi Arabia to live up to the Olympic Charter and include female athletes in their delegation as condition of taking part in the 2012 Games.
The Olympic Charter states that “the practice of sports is a human right, without discrimination of any kind.”
“I don’t see at present a sign that the Saudi government is opening up sport for women,” Wilcke said. “But nevertheless we now have in this a formal Saudi position that women and sports are not incompatible. And I expect Saudi women will take this up in the future when they want to hold tournaments and play games and remind the Saudi government that there is a precedent.
“I think it’s important. It is an official statement of policy breaking an old taboo.”
Said Christopher Sherrington, 28, who competes as a member of Britain’s Armed Forces: “The first time I spotted her, she had the headgear on, and I said, ‘Oh, there’s the Saudi girl!’ Great for them to come in! And great for them to fight! The more women, the merrier!”
Champions are built in incremental steps, not overnight. Social change comes about much the same way. And Shaherkani’s fellow Olympians cheered her effort.
“I admire her for coming from that country and having the courage to compete,” Mojica said. “I didn’t feel pity for her. I felt a lot of respect.”