Work in Sports
Arab women make breakthrough at Games
SYDNEY, Australia -- After Fatima Gerashi of Bahrain pulled herself out of the water following Heat 1 of the women's 50-meter freestyle on Friday at Sydney International Aquatic Centre, she faced the same gauntlet of reporters and photographers that every other notable Olympian had faced before her. But she turned and was hustled away. Was she nervous, was she scared, was she exhibiting the modesty demanded of females from Arab countries? No, she said later in excellent English, "I was just sick of being interviewed."
If this 12-year-old who had never before been off her home island -- indeed, had never swum in an international competition -- seems a bit jaded, forgive her. All week she had been carrying on her tiny shoulders one newsworthy designation: She is the youngest competitor at these Games. And on Friday she added a weighty second: By plunging into the water alongside Paula Barila Bolupa of Equatorial Guinea and Moe Thu Aung of Myanmar, Gerashi became the first female from an Arabian Gulf country to compete in the Olympics.
The fact that she false-started and was DQ'd, and thus didn't get her 51.15 entered into the official record, didn't diminish a potentially revolutionary act, one that was reinforced nearly four hours later by Fatima's 16-year-old teammate, Miriam Al Hilli, who stepped into the blocks for Heat 8 of the women's 100-meter sprint at Stadium Australia wearing a modest t-shirt beneath her singlet. Miriam, too, false-started before getting blown away by a heat that included Debbie Ferguson of the Bahamas and Torri Edwards of the U.S. But her run was still a triumph. "My race felt so good, it was like a dream," said Miriam, who recorded a personal best of 13.98.
Though neither girl posed a threat in her event, their very presence represented a huge breakthrough for Arab women, whose freedoms have traditionally been severely curtailed. "It is a great honor to represent my country," said Miriam, who, like Fatima, wears western clothes and speaks English. "It is the first time for women to show their potential in sports. It's an encouragement to others. It's a first step and we will lead the way."
The girls' opportunity to become pioneers came about when no Bahraini team qualified for the Olympics. The IOC then offered the country wild-card spots for two female and two male athletes. The sports federations made recommendations to the National Olympic Committee, based on times from national competitions, and the fathers were consulted. Though Fatima's mother was in for a fortnight of worrying -- she has called Fatima every day since she has been in Sydney, accompanied by a chaperone -- her father was eager to let her go, because, he said, "I want her to see the world."
Fatima likes what she has seen of the world so far, though she wasn't sure she was crazy about the sport she has already indelibly marked. "I like football," she said. "Swimming is just a hobby."
SI For Women staff writer Kelli
Anderson is in Sydney covering the Games for the magazine and CNNSI.com.
Check back to read Anderson's behind-the-scenes reports from Down Under.