Breaking down the barriers: soon this woman could run the Olympics
Hurdler who was first female Muslim to win a gold medal is leading contender for the IOC's top job
Sunday 13 January 2013
London's Olympic year was a watershed for women. Equality was the buzzword of a Games which for the first time saw female participation in all 26 sports and girl power virtually dominate Britain's record medal haul.
Now 2013 could be the year when an already cracked glass ceiling finally shatters, with a woman being appointed as the most significant figure in world sport.
Jacques Rogge steps down later this year as president of the International Olympic Committee, and coming up fast on the rails to replace him is Nawal el Moutawakel, the first Muslim woman to win an Olympic gold medal, the most formidable female presence on the IOC and emerging as a leading contender for the top job.
The candidacy of El Moutawakel is a boost for a cause that she passionately believes in, namely the end of men's long-standing hegemony in global sport. At 50, she would be the first woman to run the IOC, and only the second non-European to do the job, following the dictatorial Avery Brundage of the United States.
For all their attempts at modernisation, the IOC remain largely a preserve of the rich, the venerable – and the male. A few women members tread Lausanne's corridors of power, but none of them as purposefully as the mother-of-two El Moutawakel.
The progressive Rogge has consistently promoted her within the organisation – she heads the co-ordinating committee for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Games – and I believe he would be happy to endorse her as his successor at the presidential election to be held at the 125th IOC session in Buenos Aires in September.
"Sport has given me so much that whatever I give back it will never be enough," she says. "I am certainly considering standing for the IOC presidency. Maybe it is time for a woman. But there is a long list of possible contenders."
These include: Thomas Bach, 59, long-serving vice-president and former German Olympic fencing champion; Richard Carrion, 60, a Puerto Rican banker; Denis Oswald, 65, a former Swiss rower and IOC stalwart; Wu Ching-kuo (aka Dr C K Wu), 66, the ambitious Taiwanese head of international boxing body AIBA; and Ng Ser Miang, 63, a Chinese-born Singaporean diplomat.
They are all men of a certain age, and none with the vibrancy of the woman who has done more than anyone – with the possible exception of Rogge himself – to champion the emancipation of women in sport.
El Moutawakel was never shy of putting her best foot forward as a runner, achieving a historic breakthrough when winning the inaugural women's 400m hurdles event at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. In doing so she became not only the first Moroccan but the first African, Arab and Muslim woman to win an Olympic gold medal.
Although she had been an accomplished runner, the victory of El Moutawakel, a student at Iowa State University in the US at the time, shocked Morocco. Previously she had been verbally abused and spat at as she ran barefoot through the streets of her native Casablanca.
However, attitudes changed sharply when King Hassan II phoned her to offer congratulations and declared that all girls born on the day of her victory were to be named in her honour.
Subsequently she became a high-flying businesswoman, then Morocco's minister of sport and an IOC executive board member, perhaps best known for leading the IOC Evaluation Commission for the London 2012 Games. Very much an Anglophile, El Moutawakel has always carried a torch for London – and literally so when running a leg of the torch relay to Westminster last summer.
Lord Coe, with whom she sits as a board member of both the International Association of Athletics Federations and the Laureus International Awards panel, has always believed she was instrumental in helping sway the decision London's way in 2005. "She is an iconic role model for women's sport, for which she has consistently broadened the parameters," he says. "I am a great admirer. She would make a terrific IOC president."
Fourteen years ago she organised the first Moroccan women's 10km race in Casablanca, an event which now attracts more than 30,000 participants annually. The men – husbands, brothers and neighbours – now cheer from the windows and roadsides. It is a remarkable display of sorority in a predominantly Muslim country.
El Moutawakel says: "Someone once said the future of sport is feminine, and I believe that. You cannot move forward without both legs, men and women. Complete integration is important, but increased female presence at major sports events is not enough. We want full inclusion in administration. Women are present in all activities, so why can't they be leaders in sport?
"London was a historic milestone for women. Women competed in every discipline and for every nation, even Saudi Arabia. Notably, the first female boxing competition was a great success. Also for the first time, 35 out of the 204 national Olympic committees had more women than men in their delegations, including Germany and the United States."
Women have certainly come a long way from the days when they were barred from taking part or even watching the original Olympics in Ancient Greece, on pain of death. And El Moutawakel recalls that even the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, initially opposed letting women take part, arguing that it would be "unsightly and inappropriate". "Like a lot of people, he has been proved wrong," she smiles.
I hope that El Moutawakel puts herself in the running for the top job and overcomes the hurdles ahead to break the tape first for sport's ultimate prize as Madame President. That really would make sport a women's world.
British women rise and shine
Among the candidates to replace the retiring Football Association chairman, David Bernstein, is Heather Rabbatts. Hers is already a historic breakthrough as the FA's first female – and black – board member.
A former chair of Millwall FC, barrister, film producer, BBC governor and director of the Bank of England, Rabbatts has been a key figure in developing the FA's anti-discrimination plan and was central to the decision to strip John Terry of the England captaincy.
Her elevation would delight the Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson, who is pushing for reform of the body he considers to be the worst-run in British sport. The Jamaican-born Rabbatts, 57, who is married to PR guru Mike Lee, says: "My track record has always been about pushing back the boundaries and that's what excites me."
Britain is a world leader in having women successfully storm sport's hitherto male bastions. Baroness Sue Campbell chairs UK Sport and Liz Nicholl is chief executive; Jennie Price is CEO at Sport England; Di Ellis chairs British Rowing, whose CEO is Kate Burt; London 2012's sports director, Debbie Jevans, now heads England's 2015 Rugby World Cup organisation; and Charlotte Leslie MP is the first woman to chair the All Parliamentary Boxing Group.
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