LONDON - Judoka Wojdan Shaherkani, the first Saudi Arabian woman to compete at the Olympics, sobbed as she admitted to being overwhelmed by her historic debut which lasted just 82 seconds on Friday. Looking nervous and wearing a black, swimming cap-style head covering, she was beaten by Melissa Mojica of Puerto Rico in the first round of the women's under-78kg category. After the fight, where she barely mustered a challenge, the 16-year-old broke down in tears as she embraced her father Ali, who is a judo referee at the Games. "I'm proud, I'm happy and I want to continue in judo. I want to thank the fans for their support," she said. "I was disturbed and afraid at the beginning, it was my first time in a big competition and there was a lot of pressure because of the hijab issue. I was not comfortable because I didn't have any experience of big events. It took its toll on me."
It covered the entire top of her head, while the back of her neck was masked by the collar of her judo suit. Several times she adjusted the cap, both before and during her bout. Saudi Judo Federation president Hani Najem, who is a cardiologist, said other sportswomen could take part in future as long as they respect the Islamic dress code. "As long as the participation of Saudi females is according to Islamic rules then nothing can oppose it," he said.
"As a heart doctor I say that sport is just as good for health for women as it is for men. Women first participated in Olympic judo 24 years after the beginning of judo in the Olympics. Everything needs time in the world, nothing can happen straight away. We will try to develop other female athletes in this sport."
Now that she has got this experience out of the way, Shaherkani is setting her sights on the next Olympics. "I want to train more and more because I want to participate in Rio de Janeiro in 2016," she said. "I think that because of my participation in this Olympic Games, other Saudi women will participate in other competitions in the future."
Shaherkani was afforded a rousing reception both as she entered the mat and as she left it, as the crowd were fully aware of the significance of her moment. Although she spoke at length to certain television stations afterwards, she left after only a few brief words to the written press. Such was the interest in her historic story that the mixed zone at the ExCeL Arena was a huge scrum as scores of journalists jostled for position to speak to Shaherkani.
She was accompanied to the mat by her brother Hasan, who remained by her side throughout her media commitments. The teenager has only been practising judo for two years and has a blue belt. But for her special invitation, she would never have qualified for the Olympics. She started judo at home with her father and also has training bouts against her brother, although she said he usually beats her. As it happened, she lasted longer than many observers expected. When the end came, she was taken over backwards with a tani-otoshi (valley drop) for the maximum ippon.