Wojdan Shaherkani was greeted with enthusiastic applause when she stepped onto the mat at London’s Excel Centre and made history Friday morning as the first woman from Saudi Arabia to compete in an Olympic Games.
The contest lasted 82 seconds. The 16-year-old Shaherkani, who was making her competitive debut in the glare of the global spotlight, was thrown on her back in an ippon by her opponent, 28-year-old Melissa Mojica of Puerto Rico in the opening round of women’s +78 kg judo.
Shaherkani didn’t speak to the horde of reporters jostling and shoving one another to get within earshot as she was escorted through the interview area afterward. But in translated remarks to the London Olympic news service, she said that she hoped her participation would be the start of something broader.
“I am very excited, and it was the opportunity of a lifetime,” Shaherkani said, according to 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.”
It was the first time the Saudi judoka had competed publicly; women aren’t allowed to play competitive sports or attend sporting events in the kingdom. And Shaherkani did so in a snug-fitting black head-covering after International Judo Federation backed down from its initial insistence that she compete uncovered. Women in Saudi Arabia are not permitted to appear in public with their arms, legs, body or head uncovered, and Shaherkani’s father had said that his daughter would withdraw from the Olympics if required to do it.
Mojica, who was eliminated in the subsequent round, told reporters afterward that she felt that Shaherkani was perhaps more insecure than afraid in their match, which began tentatively, with each circling the other and taking occasional pokes at her opponent. Once Mojica took firm hold of Shaherkani, it ended quickly.
“I didn’t make her any favors, but I waited for the right moment,” Mojica said. “I admire her for coming from that country and having the courage to compete. I didn’t feel pity for. I felt a lot of respect.”
Shaherkani is one of two Saudi women to compete in the 2012 Olympics. Runner Sarah Attar will compete in the women’s 800-meter race next Wednesday.
(This post has been updated with the exact match time, 82 seconds.)