Olympics 2012: Two women make history at judo, America's Harrison and Saudi's Shaherkani

It only took 82 seconds for Wojdan Shaherkani of Saudi Arabia to lose her judo match, but in the process she made history as the country’s first female Olympian. Photo: AP

CHARLOTTE, August 3, 2012 – And then it was over. It took Saudi Arabia’s first female Olympian less than a minute and a half to lose her judo match to highly ranked Melissa Mojica of Puerto Rico.

Meanwhile American Kayla Harrison became the first American of either sex to win the judo competition, handily defeating Great Britain’s golden girl. And what a study in contrasts the saga of women’s judo has been.

In the process, Wojdan Shaherkani, a 16-year old Saudi woman, became a trailblazer for her native country after a week of controversy that preceded her match. After the bout, Shaherkani was elated at the significance of her accomplishment despite the defeat saying through an interpreter, “Hopefully this is the beginning of a new era.”

Shaherkani’s achievement is bittersweet, however. At a breakthrough moment that could be and should be a point of national pride and unification, her participation in the games received fiercely divided feelings among Saudis.  

Not only are women’s athletics rare in Saudi Arabia, females are never permitted to compete in front of spectators where men and women are mixed. So angry are some of the dissenters, they have gone so far as to label both Shaherkani and Sarah Attar, another female Saudi Olympian, as prostitutes.

Despite the compromise and the positive aspects of women’s sports as well as the future of women’s right in Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom’s Olympic committee is apparently still conflicted about including women on the team. Neither woman was allowed to participate with the men in the team photo when it was taken earlier in the week by the Saudi Press Agency.

Shaherkani about to compete and lose to Puerto Rico’s Melissa Mojica AP

Other aspects of Shaherkani’s participation also developed as the week progressed that raise serious questions. Was the International Olympic Committee’s determination to have women of every country represented in the games overly zealous? And what are the long-term ramifications of appeasing cultural differences in other political and societal arenas that will arise in the future?

While the intent of the IOC to have women participate from every country may have initially had positive motivations, the fact that Shaherkani had never participated in an international judo match combined with her obvious lack of Olympic-caliber skills diluted the ultimate purpose of the games themselves.

Though Olympic ideology in its purest form is intended to focus upon participation rather than winning or losing, it is also meant to feature competition among the best athletes in the world. In than sense, Shaherkani should never have been allowed to participate.

In an odd twist that reads like an O’Henry short story, gold medalist, American Kayla Harrison, 22, of Massachusetts, was a victim of sexual abuse as a teenager and took up judo six years ago as part of her rehabilitation.

Today Harrison is now the first American judo athlete, male or female, to ever win an Olympic gold. Her victory was a major upset of crowd favorite Gemma Gibbons of Great Britain with a pair of yukos at 3:54 and 0:59. 

“I wanted to go out there and I wanted to dominate the entire fight,” Harrison said after the match. “And I wanted the crowd and I wanted myself to know that I was an Olympic champion this day. And you know Gemma showed up. She fought with a lot of heart….She is a fierce, fierce competitor and she has a lot of heart. Today was just my day.”

As for Shaherkani, perhaps her groundbreaking performance will bring the hope and the appropriate acknowledgement from Saudi Arabia as well as the global community.

Consultant Alla al Mizyen of Jeddah said, “Saudi girls often are told they can’t play sports. Now they can point to Shaherkani and say, ‘No I can do this, and not only that, but I can go to a global platform like the Olympics.’”

While that should be the message, it should also be pointed out that much of Saudi Arabia failed to witness Shaherkani’s accomplishment on television because her match took place during prayer time in the country.

And so the debate continues.

Peabod is Bob Taylor, owner of Taylored Media Services in Charlotte, NC. He played professional baseball for four years and was a sportscaster for 14 years at WBTV, the CBS affiliate in Charlotte. Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club, which creates, and escorts customized tours to Switzerland, France and Italy for groups of 12 or more. Inquiries for groups can be made at Peabod@aol.com Taylored Media has produced marketing videos for British Rail, Rail Europe, Switzerland Tourism, the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council, the Finnish Tourist Board, the Swiss Travel System and Japan Railways Group among others. As author of The Century Club book, Peabod is now attempting to travel to 100 countries or more during his lifetime. To date he has visited 69 countries. Suggest someplace new for Bob to visit; if you want to know where he has been, check his list on Facebook. Bob plans to write a sequel to his book when he reaches his goal of 100 countries.


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Bob Taylor

Bob Taylor has been travel writer for more than three decades. Following a career as an award winning sports producer/anchor, Taylor’s media production business produced marketing presentations for Switzerland Tourism, Rail Europe, the Finnish Tourist Board, Japan Railways Group, the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council and the Swiss Travel System among others. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com) and his goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.


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