Feature22 Mar 1999

Nawal El Moutawakel - Pioneer and militant for Progress


Nawal El Moutawakel after winning the 1984 Olympic Games 400m hurdles (© Getty Images)

Who does not remember the tears of this young Arab athlete at the Los Angeles Olympics?

Nawal El Moutawakel, aged 22 at the time, enchanted the world and offered Morocco its first Olympic gold medal, but also shattered many a hidebound belief.

Up to that time, a lot of people believed, erroneously, that the Arabic and Muslim woman was incapable of accomplishing such a feat. In a society in which, at times, certain religious precepts are wrongly interpreted and in which blind conservatism smothers many talents, it is difficult for a woman to perform in public.

Nawal El Moutawakel benefited from a more favourable environment in Morocco, where women are more and more on an equal footing with men, in spite of the persistence of certain taboos. Her merit is to have played the role of the locomotive, and allowed female athletes from other Arabic and Muslim countries to go beyond traditions and prejudice, and show their talents.

For this reason, Nawal, who is now 36, is still extremely popular in her home country, where she is considered a pioneer and a role model.

From her early youth, the future Olympic Champion had shown a great interest for running, and, used to practice her favourite hobby unbeknown to her parents in the Bourgogne district of Casablanca where she grew up. "My family gave me the total support which allowed me to progress…It is my regretted Father who used to drive me to the stadium, wait for me and take me back home," said Mrs. El Moutawakel, stressing the role of the parents in the development of their children.

"The most important moment for a young female athlete is undoubtedly the first time she steps onto an athletics track. I must say I was not without apprehension (though this fortunately quickly disappeared) when I started to race with the youths of my age amid the astonished looks of bystanders," says Nawal El Moutawakel.

Nawal El Moutawakel thus turned to athletics with the blessing of her family in 1978. She competed in her first cross country before choosing to specialise in the sprints and finally the 400m hurdles. It was on the track of her Casablanca club, one of the oldest in Morocco, that Nawal started to understand her real potential.

Some years later (1982) she took a first African title, in Cairo. In 1983, she reached the semi-finals at the first World Championships in Athletics in Helsinki. In September of the same year, she was crowned Mediterranean Games Champions in her native city.

Moving to the United States in 1984 to study Physical Education and physiotherapy at Iowa State University, Nawal El Moutawakel was able to refine her technique and improve her speed.

The results were not long in coming: a first NCAA title in the stifling heat of California and the high point of her career in Los Angeles . "it was the greatest moment of my life," recalls the Gazelle of the Atlas to this day.

To everyone’s surprise and at the height of her career, Nawal stopped competing, at only 25 years of age. This enforced retirement was due to a series of reasons: the death of her father, the tragic loss of all the members of her University team in an aeroplane crash, surgery on her knee, an EMBALGIE which caused her great suffering…

However, Nawal has not entirely divorced from athletics.

Upon her return to Morocco in 1990 with a Masters degree in Physical Education and physiotherapy, she embraced a new career, first coaching at grass roots level, then as National Athletics Director.

Vice president of the Moroccan Federation and member of the Moroccan Olympic Committee, a first in Moroccan sport, Nawal understood very early that she needed to enter the decisional sphere in order to help improve the situation of women in the sport. The shy young woman is nowadays one of the rare women members of two of the sports world’s major bodies: the IOC and the IAAF.

Wanting to give a new boost to Women athletics in the Arab world, Mrs El Moutawakel, who made her debut as actress, playing the role of a teacher in the Italian movie Riccardo Due, has never stopped fighting for the promotion of women’s athletics world wide.

During the Year of Women in Athletics promoted by the IAAF, women had the opportunity to participate in the International meeting in Doha last 7 of May, in a country where it was until then impossible to see women competing in shorts. This metamorphosis has been possible thanks to the perseverance of athletes such as El Moutawakel and other Arab athletes like Algeria’s Hassiba Boulmerka and Syria’s Ghada Shouaa.

In her native Morocco, Nawal works unceasingly for the accomplishments of sportswomen in athletics and other sports. She even had the idea of creating a women’s soccer team when she was secretary of state for youth and sports.

In 1998, Moroccan women athletes have progressed along the path showed by Nawal especially thanks to the performances of Nezha Bidouane, the world 400m hurdles champion; Zahra Ouaziz and rising star Hasna Ben Hessi.

Bidouane, who was designated Continental Patron for Africa of the Year of Women in Athletics by the IAAF, won easily the 8th IAAF World Cup in Johannesburg while Ouaziz finished second in the short race at last IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Marrakech and 3rd over 3000m in Johannesburg.

Nawal, who fluently speaks Arab, French and English, took part in numerous seminars, symposiums and conferences all over the world to fight for the women’s condition in the sport during 1998.

Nawal, who works for a Moroccan Bank Foundation for the development of sport and social development, intends to publish an autobiographic book in which she will retrace her whole career. She will explain how she managed to successfully reconcile both her professional and private life.

''l'athletisme, affirme-t-elle, m'a appris a mieux me connaitre, a me former, a surmonter tant de difficultes et tant de defis qui m'ont forge le caractere et la personnalite. il est vrai que parfois il est un peu difficile de tout mener de front: les obligations familiales, le travail et le sport. preserver un equilibre entre les trois est tres important pour le role que j'ai a jouer dans notre societe''

"Athletics, she declares, has taught me more about myself. It has helped me go through all the difficulties and challenges that have made my character, my personality. It is true that sometimes it is not easy to deal with family, work and sport all together. But keeping a certain balance between those three aspects of one’s life is essential for the role that I have to play in our society.

And her battle continues…"I’m trying to share the knowledge I acquired during my career"

Mohamed Benchrif for the IAAF

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