The 2012 London Olympics constitute a landmark in the history of sports in the Gulf region with the first participation for female athletes from Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as the first medal for Bahrain.
Bahraini runner Mariam Jamal became the first Gulf female athlete to mount the podium to receive a bronze medal for the 1,500m race, and although her Saudi and Qatari counterparts failed to secure any medals, their participation is itself a groundbreaking change that placed them in the limelight.
Eight female Arab athletes from Algeria, Morocco and Syria have gotten medals in the Olympics, but Jamal was the first from the Gulf.
Female Bahraini presence in the London Olympics was quite remarkable with runners Mimi Salem and Jamila Sami (1,500m), Maitha Lahdan (marathon), Taj Baba (5,000m), and Shama Mubarak (10,000m) in addition to Azza al-Qassimi in shooting and Sara al-Faleej in swimming.
The participation of Saudi female athletes received wide international coverage, especially after the Olympic Committee insisted that at least one woman from each country should participate. After a lot of deliberation, the Saudi Olympic Committee approved the participation of Wajdan Shaherkani in judo and Sarah Attar in athletics.
Shaherkani, however, was on the verge of withdrawing after going to London when the International Judo Federation objected to the headscarf “for safety reasons.” After long negotiations, the federation finally approved that she wears a bonnet that resembles the one used by female swimmers. Shaherkani’s 82 seconds in the Olympic Games were historic for they mark the end of the ban placed on Saudi women from taking part in public sports events.
After losing, Shaherkani’s words were quite moving.
“I am happy and proud that I participated,” she said. “My participation would open the door for other Saudi women to take part in similar events in the future.”
Sarah Attar, 19, ran in front of 80,000 people who cheered when her name was announced and also after she reached the finish line despite the fact that she was 30 seconds behind the last of the runners.
“My presence here is a great experience,” she said after the race, adding that she is proud to be representing Saudi women.
“This is a historic moment which I hope would make a great difference in the future.”
Qatari women participated in four games for the first time. Qatari female athletes in the 2012 Olympics included Bahya al-Hamad (shooting), Aia Majdi (table tennis), Nada Wafa (swimming), and Nour al-Malki (athletics).
“I am proud to take part in the Olympic Games. It is a dream come true,” said al-Hamad.
The UAE sent two female athletes who were admitted to the Olympics after being qualified. The first is weightlifter Khadija Mohammad (75kg) who was qualified for the Olympics after the UAE got fifth place in the Asia championship in South Korea.
The second is runner Elham Beiti who was qualified after winning the 1,500m race in Casablanca on June 9.
This is not the first participation for Emirati women in the Olympics. The 2008 Olympics witnessed the participation of Sheikha Maithaa, the daughter of Dubai governor Mohamed bin Rashed Al Maktoum, in taekwondo and Sheikha Latifa Al Maktoum in equestrian.
Three female Kuwaiti athletes took part in the London Olympics: Maryam Arzouqi (shooting), Salsabeel al-Sayar (athletics 100m), and Faye Sultan (swimming 100m freestyle).
Oman was represented by runner Shinouna al-Habasi (100m).
Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Brunei were the only three countries who did not send female athletes to the Beijing Olympics in 2008.