Nawal El Moutawakel, currently the Vice President of the International Olympic Committee IOC, returns to Los Angeles 33 years after her glorious achievement on August 8, 1984, when she became the first Arab-African Muslim woman to win an Olympic Gold Medal. Nawal El Moutawakel and 11 other members of the IOC have paid a three-day visit to the California metropolis, Los Angeles, which is competing with Paris for organising the Olympic Games in 2024.
Nawal El Moutawakel, the pride of Morocco and Africa, is a story of success, glory, and challenge from an amateur athlete in the streets of Casablanca to an Olympic champion, and then a Vice President of the most prestigious sporting institution, a position only one African woman has attained. It is thanks to her struggle, self-determination, and her hard work that Nawal El Moutawakel has been able to positively and successfully represent the abilities and competences of African women nowadays. It is an honor to see her supervising two big cities such as Paris and Los Angeles competing for organising the Olympic Games.
Nawal El Moutawakel: The Athlete
Nawal El Moutawakel marked the history of African sports in general, and that of Morocco in particular, during her victory in the 400-meter hurdles of the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984. It is that record that made her a legendary sportswoman, as being the first African-Arab Muslim woman to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games and a symbol of pride for African women.
“King Hassan II called me just a few minutes after I crossed the finish line,” said Nawal El Moutawakel. “Someone took me into a private room and said to me, ‘The King is on the phone. He wants to talk to you.’” Then, he addressed me: “I am so proud of you, Nawal. The whole country is happy and proud of your achievement.” “In fact, I was speechless,” said Nawal El Moutawakel. “I couldn’t believe that the king was still awake and watching me, although it was in the early morning in Morocco.” Besides, the greatest surprise, as Nawal El Moutawakel always mentions in her interviews, is the king’s official decision to celebrate her victory by naming every girl born in Morocco during that day by her name.
From the Streets of Casablanca to the IOC
This militant and feminist made her sporting career the cornerstone of her entry into politics. Animated by the desire to emancipate women through sport, Nawal El Moutawakel organises the Women’s Race every year in Casablanca. She embodies the modern Moroccan woman and doubles her commitment to Morocco and her sporting career through her involvement in international institutions serving sport and women in Maghreb and Africa.
In her studies, Nawal El Moutawakel holds a Master’s Degree in Physical Education from the University of Iowa in the United States. Her university career led her to the position of athletic coach before being a decision maker.
Her victory in 1984 triggers the jubilation in Morocco. It marks her entry onto the political scene when the late King Hassan II, appointed her Secretary of State for Youth and Sports to the Minister of Social Affairs. She was, again, appointed the same position from 2007 to 2009 as Minister of Sports and Youth.
Nawal El Moutawakel has surpassed the idea that the sporting institution is a masculine environment. She was awarded the ‘National Merit’ in 1983, became a member of the International Athletics Federation in 1993, and then in 1998, she became a member of the International Olympic Committee IOC, holding important positions on the Executive Board. Later, she was appointed as Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF in 1999, and at the UN in 2011 for the Millennium Development Goals. Nawal El Moutawakel is ranked among the ‘50 Most Influential African Personalities in the world,’ according to Young Africa Magazine. Finally, in 2015, she was decorated by the Legion of Honor by President Francois Hollande, as being a powerful and influential Moroccan and African woman. In 2016, she supervised the preparation of the 2016 Olympic Games held in Brazil.
A Symbol of Emancipation
In fact, the story of Nawal El Moutawakel is not only about being an Olympic champion and an international official; it is also about the emancipation of women, and the great role that women from developing countries can play at the international level. It can be said that in the field of sport, some successes have a greater impact than others because of the symbolic value to which they are charged. That is the case of Nawal El Moutawakel, who has created the hope of emancipation for millions of Muslim women during the 80s, when Islamic and Arab countries were very conservative. Accordingly, she embodies the modern Moroccan, Muslim and African woman, a figure of a movement of emancipation through sport, culture, and integration with a political life.
Nawal El Moutawakel, along with women in Morocco, believe her victory in the Olympic Games in 1984 helped change the lives of thousands of Muslim women across the world as they were marginalized and had no voice or role in society at that time. It was also thought that women couldn’t do well in community life, and especially in masculine domains such as sport. However, after her triumph, athletics became the interest of thousands of women in the Arab and Islamic world. In fact, Nawal El Moutawakel became such an iconic public figure and symbol of emancipation and challenge for Muslim women, as expressed on a variety of occasions, that she received letters from women, with and without the veil, thanking her for “liberating” them and creating a new history for them.
Nawal El Moutawakel: The Vice President of the IOC
Once not customary, it was a woman who refereed the race between the five cities’ candidates for the organisation of the Olympic Games in 2012. The same is happening now. This African woman is in charge of supervising and selecting the city which will have the honor of organising the Olympic Games in 2024.
The year 2012 was a special year for the former 400-meter Olympic champion. Nawal El Moutawakel (Moroccan) and Craig Reedie (English) were elected in London as new Vice Presidents of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Nawal El Moutawakel won a majority of 81 votes “for” and 10 “against,” and therefore replaced China’s Zaiqing Yu, whose term had ended, and Italy’s Mario Pescante, who was to hold the post until 2013, but preferred to resign following the withdrawal of the candidacy of Rome for the organisation of the Olympic Games of 2020.