Nawal El Moutawakel became the first Moroccan to win a Gold medal at the Olympics and she hasn’t stopped blazing trails since.
Tens of thousands sat in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on a blazing day in August of 1984, ready to watch the first-ever Women’s 400 meters hurdles at an Olympic event. The co-commentators emphasized the importance of agility and pointed out that the taller women should have the advantage heading into the race.
Come the actual race; it was 5-foot-3 Casablanca-born Nawal El Moutawakel who powered ahead of her opponents and effortlessly cleared the hurdles all the way to first place.
El Moutawakel was not a frontrunner going into the race. She ranked third in her semi-final heat, and compared to her counterparts she came into the sport of track and field relatively late. El Moutawakel started racing in her mid-teenage years. She had undying support from her parents, who were both athletes, and encouraged all five of their children to compete in sports.
By the time she was 17, El Moutawakel started training professionally. Her first two races were at the 1979 Mediterranean Games in Yugoslavia, where she placed sixth and fifth in the 100m and 200m, respectively. Two years later, she won gold at the same two events during the Arab Championships. By 1981, she started hurdling, and her performances caught the eyes of university scouts.
After the World Championships, she received a package in the mail from Iowa State, and after having a friend translate the documents, El Moutawakel approached her parents for permission. Her father took all of two seconds to agree. Mohamed El Moutawakel was his daughter’s biggest champion. He often eased El Moutawakel’s fears of her competitors’ larger stature by saying that “rubies and diamonds come in small packages.”
Nawal El Moutawakel never expected to make the Olympics
While at the airport saying her goodbyes, El Moutawakel’s parents urged her to dream big, with her father reminding her that it was vital that she seize the opportunity and not be afraid to dream big. Olympics big.
Early on in her career, the Olympics were not even within the realm of possibility; El Moutawakel just wanted to compete. But hearing her father push her was all the encouragement she needed. That conversation at the airport would be her last with her father. He died in a car crash a week later. A tragic event that spurred her on to fulfill her ambition.
A year later, El Moutawakel qualified for the Olympics to represent Morocco. Initially, her goal was to make the finals and into the top eight. It was her coaches who encouraged her to aim higher.
El Moutawakel definitely felt the nerves come the day of the final, having nightmares the night prior. But she clearly was able to shake them off. About 300m into the race, she really started to pull away from the pack. So much so that she turned and checked behind her to ensure that her competitors were still racing.
When she won, it was clear that emotion overtook her. Tears of joy streamed down her face as she celebrated the victory. After hugs from her competition and her coaching staff, she grabbed the Moroccan flag and waved it proudly to the sea of fans in the stadium.
El Moutawakel not only became the first Moroccan to win an Olympic Gold medal; she also became the first Muslim woman from Africa to win a medal at the Games.
“It was a historic moment that will forever stay in my mind and in my heart,” she told the BBC.
Her win was so iconic that she became an instant celebrity in her home country. King Hassan II, the monarch of Morocco at the time, declared that all girls born on Aug. 8, the day of El Moutawakel’s victory, should be named after her.
El Moutawakel never made it to another Games. However, after her historic win, she still competed in several competitions, winning six more gold medals.
Despite retiring at the age of 25, El Moutawakel never really left the world of sport. By 1995, she joined World Athletics. A couple of years later, she was appointed Minister of Sport and Youth in Morocco and was elected as a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). She has continued to advocate for the investment of women’s sports at the grassroots level in Morocco, the rest of Africa, and predominantly Muslim countries.
El Moutawakel has always been adamant that her win was not in defiance of her religion or upbringing, something that she made clear when she was honored with a Laureus Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.
“In my religion, women were never forbidden to compete. Women could compete equally as men, and that’s what I felt growing up in an environment that was very supportive. I never felt any resistance [in wanting to become an athlete] whatsoever. Until the day I won in 1984, when many microphones were placed in front of me, talking about this resistance. And I was like, ‘What do you mean?’”
When writing about women athletes who come from similar backgrounds as El Moutawakel, it is all too common that their stories revolve around the disapproving male figures in their lives, the violence in their community, or the fact that the woman has become free from a cycle of oppression.
El Moutawakel’s story is trailblazing. But it is trailblazing because she was the first to accomplish a remarkable feat, not due to any lack of agency. Her story will certainly inspire the 16 women set to represent Morocco in Tokyo later this month.