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Saudi judoka makes historic Olympic appearance

Saudi Arabia's Wojdan Shaherkani walks away after her women's +78kg elimination round of 32 judo match against Puerto Rico's Melissa Mojica at the London 2012 Olympic Games August 3, 2012.

Reuters

She's the first woman to compete for Saudi Arabia in the Olympics and her Games lasted just 1 minute and 22 seconds.

Still, 16-year-old Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani made history and smiled after her brief match with Melissa Mojica of Peru which ended when the Peruvian scored an ippon or takedown.

"I was scared a lot, because of all the crowd around and lost, because this is the first time," Shahrkhani said afterward. "I'm excited and proud to be representing my country, unfortunately I lost, but hopefully I'll do better next time. Hopefully I'll achieve a medal next time...I am very excited and it was the opportunity of a lifetime, certainly the Saudi Arabia judo federation are delighted that I've been able to come here. Hopefully this will be the start of bigger participation for other sports also...Hopefully this is the begin of a new era."

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Shahrkhani caused controversy before the tournament started when the Saudi delegation demanded she be allowed to compete in a hijab. The judo federation initially refused, citing safety concerns. The federation eventually relented after days of negotiations with the Saudis, mediated by the International Olympic Committee, which had pushed Saudi Arabia to include women on its Olympic team. In the end, a compromise was reached and Saherkani emerged Friday wearing a modified hijab that covered her head.

The crowd roared as she walked up to the mat Friday while the announcer noted the significance. She was clearly outclassed from the start, not surprising since she does not hold a black belt and has never competed outside her country. Her only instructor has been her father who is a judoka and referee.

After some preliminary grappling, Mojica, who is ranked 24th in the world, flipped the Saudi on to her back in lightening speed. And that was it.

Shahrkhani left the competition with her brother, Hassan Ali Seraj, smiling and laughing.

"I think it's a milestone," said Dr. Hari Kamal Najm President of the Saudi Judo Federation. "We're so proud...I think she did extremely well. We are very proud of her."

He also played down the hijab controversy. "I don't think this is an issue. The head cover does not make a difference," he said. "We are very proud of her being a woman in the Olympics, and certainly it's a good start and hopefully it will progress from here onwards."

For her part, Mojica also bushed aside the hijab issue saying she doesn't care about the religious issues.

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"It's not important," she said through a translator. "It's very important that every woman in the world has the opportunity to come to the Olympics."

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More

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