LONDON (Reuters) - After days of controversy and hours of negotiation over whether she could compete in an Islamic headscarf, Saudi Arabia’s first female athlete to appear at the Olympic Games bowed out on Friday after 80 seconds.
Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani, one of the two Saudi women chosen to compete at the Games, wore something akin to a swimming cap to cover her head in her +78kg last-32 judo defeat by Melissa Mojica.
Despite the quick end to her Olympic adventure, she hopes her legacy will last for years.
“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.
The shy 17-year-old looked ill at ease as she entered the arena in an ill-fitting judogi (a judoka’s white robe) that appeared several sizes too big.
Her bewilderment was hardly surprising as she had never competed at an international tournament before. She smiled nervously as she walked to the mat to warm applause and cheers from the crowd at London’s Excel Centre.
“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 her opponent.
It ended when the teenager was thrown to the floor by the Puerto Rican for an automatic winning ippon.
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 then embraced by her brother, who gave her a lengthy hug.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had extended a special invitation to her and fellow female Saudi athlete, teenage 800 meter runner Sarah Attar, after it pressed Saudi Arabia along with fellow conservative Muslim nations Qatar and Brunei to end their ban on female participation.
However, Shaherkani’s appearance at the Games was thrown into doubt last week after the International Judo Federation, the sport’s governing body, ruled that she could not compete wearing a hijab or Islamic headscarf because it would be dangerous.
The IJF said last week that its regulations forbade headgear because a fighter could be accidentally choked during the rough, physical contests.
However, other female judokas said they could not see a problem with a competitor wearing a hijab.
“I think it’s no problem for us, it might be a problem for her. But I can’t see why she shouldn’t have it,” said Slovenia’s Urska Zolnir, who won gold in the women’s -63kg judo category on Tuesday.
A compromise was struck between the IJF, the Saudi Olympic Committee and Olympic bosses on an acceptable form of headscarf after days of deliberation.
Editing by Mark Meadows