Yesterday, the world watched while a teenaged girl make Olympic history as the first African American all-around gymnastics champ. I didn’t watch the event. But I know Gabby Douglas did the USA proud. I know she will become an instant inspiration to girls of all hues by being the best at what she does and will be a great example of hard work and dedication.
And in honor of that I will forgo my usual stuff about how much easier it is for first-world nations to win medals than developing countries, how TV has made gymnastics way too melodramatic and central to their telecasts , how I think girls so young being trained that hard and having life revolve around getting an Olympic medal is a little wackadoo, and I will just say WELL DONE…
Because anyone who puts in that work deserves congratulations and respect.
And when it comes to a country like ours, where race has been a limiting factor in so many arenas, a first in a sport which didn’t seem to have a place for African American women is important. Of course, African American women have astounded audiences for generations with their Olympic success– Wilma Rudolph, FloJo, Jackie Joyner Kersee, The Williams Sisters. But it is cool to see an African American woman make it to the top in a new arena.
–because it says something about progress, about inclusiveness, and it makes that whole thing about “Anyone can do it if she works hard enough” seems a little more true.
It’s a great moment for Gabby and her team.
And by her team, I mean our whole country.
But as we give Gabby D a round of cheers for her fierceness and her first-ness and her fitness and her kickbuttness, I also want to point out another teenage girl who made waves this week.
If you have heard of her, it isn’t because she is in one of the sports NBC decided to make popular, nor because she fits some media standard of cute or spunky or binki-rocker or sweetheart . Wojdan does judo and she does it in the 172 lb weight class.
You also haven’t heard of her because she’s good at her sport. She’s only been doing it two years and she lost her bout today in 82 seconds by the Judo equivalent of knockout.
And you definitely haven’t heard of her because she is a superstar in her country. Up until a few days ago, Wojdan’s own country wasn’t sure if they’d even let her compete. And she only got in because the IOC invited her not because she went through the country’s system.
Because no such system exists for women in Saudi Arabia.
Which brings us to why Wojdan Shaherkani is awesome.
Wojdan Shaherkani is the first female ever – ever – to compete for the nation of Saudi Arabia in the Olympic games. Until today, I had no idea she was so young.
And today, another teen girl, Noor Hussain Al-Maliki broke boundaries in seconds, too. She was the first female ever to compete for Qatar, also a nation where girls aren’t equal to boys and aren’t encourage to play sports.
Al-Maliki is a runner, but liker her Saudi pioneering counterpart, her competition ended with a quick defeat. Just out of the blocks in the 200 M – where she was taking a wild card space allotted to underrepresented nations- Al-Maliki was felled by a hamstring pull and had to be helped off the track.
Her words afterwards are inspirational and give us insight into what some girls are up against:
“”I can’t say that I ever dreamed of going to the Olympics when I was growing up,” she said. “Because that was just not possible, it was not something you thought about….
“My dream started when they actually told me I would be competing. It was the best thing I could imagine, to be going to the Olympics. I was not sure it was real, but it was….I understand the responsibility of this, how important it is to say you are representing your country. It will be my proudest moment and I hope it will show other girls what you can achieve with sport and what it adds to your life. I am not one of the world’s best athletes, but I want to show that being athletic is a good thing that should be encouraged.” (Yahoosports)
And then there was 400m runner Maziah Mahusin of Brunei, a young runner also the first woman to represent her nation. She did a little better, setting a new record for her country in her event. And she, too, spoke of her pride and the impact of her run: “”I have received a lot of text messages. They want to be like me, they want to compete at the Olympics some day. It’s such an honour for me.”
I don’t know how hard it was for Wojdan or Al-Maliki or Mahusin to train, to get into the games, to get where they are. Maybe it wasn’t hard at all. And I have no idea their feelings about their country, the national rules, or their religion. (I know Wojdan herself didn’t want to fight without a headcovering and almost withdrew.) I am not going to guess.
All I know is, in less three competitions- two of them lasting less than two minutes – three teenaged girls made themselves, their sports, their countries and their gender a little more free.
And so, despite the outcomes, the day was a quite a victory for Wojdan and Al-Maliki and Mahusin and their team.
And by their team, I mean the world.