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Changed the Game: Nawal El Moutawakel's stunning gold medal broke barrier for Muslim athletes

Jason Owens
·4-min read
Nawal El Moutawakel of Morocco clears a hurdle during the inaugural Women's 400 metres hurdles event at the XXIII Olympic Summer Games on 8th August 1984 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by Tony Duffy/Allsport/Getty Images)
Nawal El Moutawakel's 1984 gold medal served as more than a landmark for her home nation of Morocco. (Tony Duffy/Allsport/Getty Images)

"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.

Nawal El Moutawakel entered the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1984 as a long shot and the only woman representing Morocco at the Olympic Games.

She left having made history and inspired a generation of women to pursue their athletic goals in the face of cultural and social headwinds.

In a mere 54.61 seconds on Aug. 8, El Moutawakel ran the race of her life on the biggest possible stage, changing the game for Arab and Muslim women with dreams of athletic achievement. The 22-year-old athlete won Olympic gold in the 400-meter hurdles, besting her previous fastest time by more than a second.

A landmark victory on multiple fronts

The gold medal was the first ever for Morocco in Olympic competition. It was the first of any kind in the 400-meter women's hurdles, which made its Olympic debut that day. And it was the first Olympic medal ever won by an Arab African Muslim woman.

El Moutawakel wasn't supposed to win that day. Victory wasn't part of her mindset until she talked her coaches.

"I felt I could be in the finals, like top eight," El Moutawakel told BBC Sport of her thought process. "But my coaches used to talk to me about believing stronger in myself and having a high self-esteem because they really thought I could win. ...

"They said I had to go from start to finish very strong, because I could win."

She added that she literally had nightmares about the race the night before the final.

"I was really scared," El Moutawakel said. “I was the only female athlete in the all Moroccan delegation, and everybody was counting on me."

An inspiration for women from majority Muslim nations

El Moutawakel's victory was a landmark for female athletes from majority Muslim and Arab states, many of which carry lengthy records of restricting women's rights. It inspired future Olympic champions like Syria's Ghada Shouaa, who won heptathlon gold in 1996 and Algeria's Hassiba Boulmerka who secured 1,500-meter gold in 1992 amid death threats from religious extremists over her racing attire. Critics wanted her dead because she revealed exposed skin while racing.

"It was a symbol of victory, of defiance," Boulmerka told BBC in 2012 of her gold medal in Atlanta. "It was to say: 'I did it. I won. And now if you kill me, it'll be too late. I've made history.'"

El Moutawakel, who credits both her parents for nurturing her athletic gifts, has argued that Islam in fact encourages women to compete in athletics while citing Prophet Muhammad.

“Teach your children how to run, do horseback riding and also swimming,” El Moutawakel said in 2019, per Arab Weekly. “This is in our religion. He never said, teach your daughter or teach your son. It says ‘teach your children’ and, in children, there is a son and daughter.”

Nawal El Moutawakel, IOC Member from Morocco and Commission Chair, fields questions from the media at a press conference during a meeting of the IOC Coordination Committee at the Marapendi Windsor Hotel April 13, 2016 in Barra da Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Nawal El Moutawakel used her landmark victory as a springboard into a powerful roled with the IOC. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

From gold medalist to IOC power broker

Now, El Moutawakel is helping set the agenda for international competition. She's worked for the International Olympic Committee since 1998. She joined the executive board in 2008 and served as a vice president from 2012-16. She's chaired multiple IOC commissions and is a coordinator for the 2028 Summer Games that return to the site of her historic run in Los Angeles.

She's celebrated as a hero in her home nation. Her 1984 victory prompted Moroccan King Hassan II to declare that all girls born on the day of her victory be named Nawal.

And she recognizes the historic impact her long-shot gold medal in 1984.

“From that moment, we’ve seen many Moroccan women being world champions — and the same thing with Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain," she told BBC. "Countries whose women never attended Olympic Games. Afterwards, they were not attending to attend, but attending to win."