LONDON – Clad in a white judo uniform and snug, black headcovering, 16-year-old Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani stepped onto a judo mat here Friday to enthusiastic applause after being introduced as "the first woman ever from Saudi Arabia!"
Eighty-two seconds into her heavyweight competition, Shahrkhani's Olympics ended in defeat, but the repercussions of her participation may be far more wide-reaching. As the first Saudi Arabian woman to compete in the Olympics in any sport, she has been vilified by some and quietly cheered by others in one of the most conservative countries in the world.
Following her loss to Puerto Rico's Melissa Mojica, Shahrkhani declined to address the throng of reporters who jostled and shoved to get within earshot of whatever she might say. Later, in a more controlled setting, Shahrkhani said she hoped her participation would signal "a new era."
Through a translator, she also conceded that, "I was scared a lot," saying that the large crowd had frightened her, as had the pressure of competing publicly for the first time.
"I am very excited, and it was the opportunity of a lifetime," Shahrkhani said, according to translated quotes provided by Olympic officials. "Certainly the Saudi judo federation (is) 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 (beginning) of a new era."
Shahrkhani is far from a typical Olympian. She had never traveled outside Saudi Arabia before coming to London. She had never competed publicly, taught the sport over the past two years by her father, a judoka and judo official himself, in the privacy of their home.
The mere idea of her participation outraged hard-line clerics and conservatives in the Islamic kingdom. Numerous online posts reportedly refer to her as "an Olympic whore." Saudi Arabia's television network refused to broadcast the match.
It was clear from the outset of Friday's match that the 241-pound Shahrkhani, a home-schooled blue belt, wasn't sufficiently skilled to compete against Olympic black belts.
"Shaking like a leaf," said an Olympic official. "She was literally shaking."
"I think she (has) talent, but she is not prepared for that kind of competition," said Poland's Urszula Sadkowska, 28, who has trained for 16 years. "It's good she is here. But it's too (little) preparation."
"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."
Shahrkhani's participation in London, along with that of fellow Saudi Sarah Attar, a Pepperdine student who competes for Saudi Arabia next week in the 800-meter run, has been hailed as a diplomatic – if symbolic – coup by the International Olympic Committee, which pressed all competing nations to include at least one woman on their teams. The three that historically had refused – Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar – relented.
Not long after Shahrkhani was dropped, Qatari runner Noor Hussain al-Malki broke slowly from Lane 3 and pulled up after just 15 meters of the 100-meter heat, grabbing her right leg. She left the arena in a wheelchair.
"Did we expect them to win gold medals?" IOC spokesman Mark Adams asked afterward without waiting for an answer. "Probably not. But they're here, they're competing, and I think we should be very happy."