LONDON (Reuters) - The first Saudi woman to compete at the Olympics may have bowed out after only 80 seconds on the judo mat on Friday but she was hailed as a heroine by many web-users in her homeland and given an enthusiastic reception by the Olympic crowd.
Only a week ago, softly spoken and shy teenager Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani had been labelled a “whore” on Twitter by some in conservative Saudi Arabia, but that criticism has been since drowned out by an outpouring of support and applause.
Her appearance had been in doubt due to wrangling days over whether judo authorities would allow her to wear an Islamic headscarf while competing, but in the end she entered the arena wearing something akin to a swimming cap.
“I’m really happy to be at the Olympics and proud to represent the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and thank all those who stood with me,” she told Reuters, clutching her older brother’s hand as they negotiated a media scrum.
Shaherkani, one of two Saudi women chosen to compete at the Games, was defeated in the first round of the +78kg judo category by Melissa Mojica of Puerto Rico.
For some in Saudi Arabia, where a strict interpretation of Islam is enforced and where women have long struggled for greater rights, whether Shaherkani won or lost did not matter.
“You are a winner in our eyes ... we’re so proud of you,” said one Twitter user called May, identified on the profile as coming from Saudi Arabia.
Also on Twitter, RFatani, also identified on his profile as coming from Saudi Arabia, said: “Wojdan has opened the door to so many Saudi women who aspire to be themselves! We salute you!”
Last week, some conservative Saudis had criticised their countrywomen’s participation in the Games, writing comments on Twitter under a hashtag that would translate as “Olympic_Whores”, but supporters of the athletes have since hijacked the hashtag.
As if in recognition of Shaherkani’s struggle, the crowd gave her a warm round of applause when she entered the arena at London’s Excel Centre.
“It was enough for us to see the full support of the people for us taking part ... That was the important thing,” Hani Najm, the head of Saudi Arabia’s judo federation, told Reuters.
The 17-year-old looked ill at ease as she stepped onto the judo mat in an ill-fitting judogi (a judoka’s suit) that appeared several sizes too big.
Her bewilderment was hardly surprising as she had never competed at an international tournament before.
“I was afraid when I came out into the arena but I was happy when I heard the cheering,” she said.
The brief fight was rather tame and appeared to be more of a cuddle with Shaherkani making no real attempts to attack.
When thrown on to the mat, she appeared more concerned in ensuring her headcovering and clothing had not slipped than getting up, a sign of the huge pressure she was under not to reveal her hair or body.
The throw was an automatic winning ippon for the Puerto Rican, marking the end of Shaherkani’s Olympic adventure.
Having only taken up the sport two years ago and not yet at the black belt rank, her defeat was hardly surprising. Her opponent shook her hand warmly and there were more cheers from the crowd.
As Shaherkani left the mat she was embraced by her brother, who gave her a lengthy hug.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had extended a special invitation to Shaherkani and fellow female Saudi athlete, teenage 800 metre runner Sarah Attar, after it pressed Saudi Arabia to end its ban on female participation.
However, Shaherkani’s appearance at the Games was thrown into doubt after Judo’s rule makers said she could not compete wearing a hijab, or Islamic headscarf, because a fighter could be accidentally choked during the rough, physical contests.
“Any kit changes are always discussed. That’s normal. It doesn’t mean there was a problem,” Najm said, playing down the row and focusing instead on the prospects for Saudi sportswomen.
“This is just the beginning ... As long as Islamic principles are followed, there’s no problem, and the proof is Wojdan’s participation,” he said.
Shaherkani, out of her judo kit and dressed again in traditional conservative Saudi garb, said she hoped “God willing” to take part in another Olympics.
If not, she has opened the door to other female contenders.
“I advise all Saudi women to take part in sports,” she said.
Additional reporting by Asma Alsharif in Jeddah; Editing by Alison Williams