London's fears over Iraq fall-out calmed by IOC's first lady

The Gulf conflict was expected to cast a shadow over the 2012 bid. Alan Hubbard hears it may not do so
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The Independent Online

Nawal El Moutawakel is not a name that will trip easily off the tongues of those augmenting London's bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, but it is one to conjure with. And one to learn to pronounce if political cards are to be played adroitly.

Some may remember her as the young girl from Morocco who, in 1984, became the first north African female to win an Olympic gold medal. Perhaps more significantly, she was also the first Muslim woman to stand on the podium, a historic breakthrough not only for her race but for a religion which in the majority of Islamic countries had hitherto actively discouraged sporting participation by women .

Nineteen years on from winning the inaugural women's 400m hurdles in Los Angeles - the first gold medal ever for her nation - El Moutawakel is still leaping barriers. She is now the only Muslim woman on both the International Olympic Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federations, a situation which should not go unheeded by London's advocates. Especially if they happened to watch the warbling from Riga last weekend.

It may be a fair distance from Latvia 2003 to Singapore 2005, but if the Eurovision Song Contest can be affected by Britain's involvement in the Iraq conflict, as many, including the Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn, seem to suggest, who is to say how the Olympic vote might be influenced by the Muslim members of the IOC?

Of course, it is surely unthinkable that London, like Jemini, would end up bottom of the poll with nul points, because whatever the merits of the city's bid, they have to be superior to the Liverpool duo's off-key number.

Nonetheless, the possibility of similar humiliation engineered by those who opposed the invasion of Iraq, which could cost London vital votes in favour of Paris, has to be considered. Which is why bridges have to be built quickly, and no one is better placed to help construct them than the 41-year-old mother of two from Casablanca, who is also the chief executive of a banking foundation. For El Moutawakel, who speaks four languages, admits to being a bit of an Anglo-phile. Moreover, hers is an increasingly influential voice in international sport's corridors of power. It is mooted that Lamine Diack, the Senegalese judge who heads the IAAF, is grooming her for the presidency when he steps down.

But it is with the IOC that she can be of greatest assistance to the London cause for, as she told me in Monaco last week, she would not support any move to orchestrate an anti-British lobby over Iraq. "I have heard that there could be this Islamic vote against London because of the Iraq war, but I ask why. I will be surprised if such a feeling does exist among IOC members, and I do not think it will happen. I am certain that in the end whoever gets the 2012 Games will be decided on sporting issues, not politics, in the true spirit of Olympism.

"Personally, I welcome London back into the race. England is a nation of great athletes, of great sporting traditions and wonderful leaders. If the bid is the best, it will win. I say, 'Good luck to London'."

Heartening words, but there is no guarantee that every Muslim member of the IOC - and there are currently 16 out of the 126 - is as open-minded. And over half the overall membership is composed of representatives from nations who opposed the war.

El Moutawakel was in Monte Carlo for the Laureus Awards as a member of their Sport for Good Foundation, which has set up a project to educate village women in Morocco about health and nutrition through sports such as handball, basketball and volleyball.

It was only a few days after the suicide bombings in her home city, which left her clearly shocked. "It makes me very sad but it will not affect the way life goes on in my country. You have crazy people everywhere, but we cannot tolerate this sort of thing in Morocco. We are an Islamic country, almost 100 per cent Muslim.

"What happened is about hate. Our religion is not about hate. There has to be solidarity to fight such terrorism. For this to happen now is a terrible thing, but our life will go on, and so will our sport."

Sporting life in Morocco, certainly for women, has been going on apace since her LA triumph. Unlike women in most other Muslim countries, notably Algeria, Syria, Egypt and Iran, she never experienced hostility from male-dominated religious factions. "In Morocco, women have been participating since the early Sixties. My mother herself competed in volleyball. But it has been one step at a time.

"In 1984 I was the only woman in a Moroccan team of 100, but as a hurdler I am used to jumping barriers. Now those barriers are coming down in other Islamic countries because I believe I showed Muslim women a wider horizon."

Two weeks ago she organised a 10km women's race, with 11,000 women of all ages running and jogging their way through the streets of Casablanca, some in ankle-length robes and veils. She is helping to set up similar events in other African nations. "Muslim women are on the move," says the barrier-breaker the IAAF's Diack calls "a great lady".

London certainly needs her singing along if the bid is to be the gem of the contest, and not the Jemini.