LONDON—It only lasted 82 seconds, but Wojdan Shaherkani made history.
The 16-year old Saudi judo fighter stepped onto the mats at the London Olympics on Friday and lost in barely a minute when a high-ranked Puerto Rican fighter easily toppled her.
But the rapid defeat didn’t detract from the bout’s significance: Shaherkani became the first woman to compete for Saudi Arabia in the Olympics—a breakthrough moment in the ultraconservative kingdom.
After the match, speaking through a Saudi judo official who translated her brief remarks to a hoard of dozens of reporters, she said she was “excited” and “a bit scared” during her groundbreaking appearance. “Hopefully this is the beginning of a new era,” she added.
It almost didn’t happen. Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most conservative Muslim countries, agreed last month to send two women to the Olympics, making it the last country to include women on its team. But with days to go before the Games, the International Judo Federation, the sport’s governing body, said she couldn’t compete while wearing a head scarf. Saudi officials, as well as Shaherkani’s father, said she couldn’t compete without one.
The two sides reached a compromise earlier this week, allowing Shaherkani to wear an unspecified form of headgear.
She showed up wearing a white judo robe and black cloth wrapped tightly around her head. Her opponent was Melissa Mojica, one of the world’s top judoka in the heavyweight category.
Shaherkani had never participated in an international judo bout. She was invited to the Olympics in a symbolic attempt to strike a blow for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. The country prohibits women from playing sports in front of mixed audiences of men and women, and Saudi schools generally don’t provide girls with physical education.
Before the fight, some other judo fighters worried that Shaherkani wasn’t qualified to compete and suggested it could be dangerous for her to square off against Olympic athletes in the violent sport.
Those concerns faded quickly when the bout got under way. Shaherkani used a defensive strategy, trying to deflect Mojica’s advances. She succeeded a few times before Mojica grabbed hold of her and swung her to the ground. That ended the match.
As she walked to the locker room, Shaherkani’s father was waiting. He embraced her in a bear hug, as Shaherkani cried. Her father, a judo referee who taught Shaherkani judo, has been nearly constantly by her side, often with his arm wrapped around her shoulder, partly due to a Saudi edict that she could only participate in the Games if constantly accompanied by a man.
In Saudi Arabia, the initial reaction to Shaherkani’s participation in the games had been fiercely divided. Some welcomed her as a trailblazer. Others derided her and the other Saudi female Olympian, a runner who has yet to compete, as “prostitutes.” The Saudi Olympic Committee itself appears to be struggling to come to terms with the inclusion of women on its squad. The young women weren’t included in a group photo of Saudi Olympic officials posing with the male Saudi Olympic athletes carried by the Saudi Press Agency this week.
On Friday, Shaherkani’s match took place around the time of the main Friday prayer in Saudi Arabia, meaning many people likely didn’t watch it live. But some Saudis were in the crowd to cheer her on.
"It was a very proud moment," said Raf Fatani, a Saudi academic who stood in the stands with a Saudi flag around his neck. Shaherkani didn’t lose because of lack of talent, he said, "she lost because the Saudi government didn’t give young women like her the training opportunity. She made every Saudi individual, man or woman, very proud, win or lose."
On Twitter, Shaherkani’s brother said he’d been passing on the kind words to his sister. “She replied that she is proud to represent the kingdom and all the Saudi women who wanna do sports,” he wrote.
"It’s going to give hope to so many young women," said Alla al Mizyen, a 22-year-old consultant in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah, who played basketball at an international school and watched Friday’s judo match on television. Saudi girls often are told they can’t play sports. Now, she said, they can point to Shaherkani and say, "No, I can do this, and not only that, but I can go to a global platform like the Olympics."