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Saudi Arabian Judo Fighter Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani Loses Olympic Debut

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Saudi Arabia's Wojdan Shahrkani and Puerto Rico's Melissa Mojica compete during the women's 78-kg judo competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Friday, Aug. 3, 2012, in London.
Saudi Arabia's Wojdan Shahrkani and Puerto Rico's Melissa Mojica compete during the women's 78-kg judo competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Friday, Aug. 3, 2012, in London.

LONDON — It was over in little more than a minute, but it will go down as one of the most memorable moments of the London Games.

A young Saudi judo fighter's decisive defeat on the mat Friday is being hailed as a victory for women in the conservative Gulf kingdom, a step that would have seemed unimaginable if thousands of fans at the sprawling ExCel Center and millions at home hadn't seen it with their own eyes.

Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani was one of just two women competing for Saudi Arabia at the games, the first time the Gulf state has sent female athletes at all. And she was only able to compete in judo after a compromise between Olympic organizers, the international judo federation and Saudi officials that cleared the way for her to wear a modified hijab.

Even that was unacceptable to hard-liners, who said she was dishonoring herself by fighting in front of men, including the male referee and judges.

The crowd roared as Shahrkhani stepped onto the mat for her fight against Puerto Rico's Melissa Mojica wearing judo dress and what appeared to be a tight-fitting black cap.

The drama was not in seeing who would win. In a competition where everyone else holds a high-level black belt, Shahrkhani has only attained a blue.

On the mat, the Saudi looked tentative and cautious on her feet, unwilling to grab Mojica's uniform and making little attempt to throw her off balance. The two heavyweights circled each other for about a minute before Mojica, the 24th-ranked judo fighter in the world in her weight class, grabbed Shahrkhani with a secure grip on her collar and flipped her onto her back, ending the match in 82 seconds.

As she rose to her feet, Shahrkhani gently reached for her head to make sure the hijab was still in place. It was, and the two women bowed to each other and left to a loud ovation.

Afterward, the teenager – whose age is given as 16 by Olympic organizers, but 17 or 18 by her father, and 19 on the Saudi Olympic website – walked with her father past journalists and TV cameras.

"I am happy to be at the Olympics," she whispered in Arabic, her brother, Hassan, holding both her arms. "Unfortunately, we did not win a medal, but in the future we will and I will be a star for women's participation."

Later, she sat on a sofa in her judo pants and a black Saudi Arabia track jacket and hijab, her father's arm around her shoulder.

"I was scared a lot, because of all the crowd," she said, giggling and animated as she answered questions from a small group of journalists, and vowed to be ready to compete again when the games move to Rio de Janeiro in 2016. "It was the opportunity of a lifetime."

Her father, Ali, a judo referee, told The Associated Press he "cried like a baby" watching his daughter compete.

"She was happy and smiled when she finished the fight. She hugged me and said: 'Daddy, I did this.' I was so proud," he said.

It didn't take long for voices of support to pour in – from the Olympic village and around the Middle East.

"Saudi judoka Wojdan Shahrkhani lost to her much more experienced competitor ... but many are proud of her," Saudi blogger and journalist Ahmed Al Omran tweeted.

Another Saudi resident, Alaa Al-Mizyen, added: "Wojdan remains a winner to me and millions of men AND women around the world."

Rafid Fatani, a Saudi-born man who has a blog called Saudi Root wrote, "I'll walk out later with the Saudi flag around my neck & my head up high as if we won the biggest gold medal in the history of the Olympics."

At the ExCel center, fans said they were thrilled to have witnessed history, even if the level of judo wasn't anything to write home about.

"I thought it was great, it's like a little piece of history that we saw this morning because it hasn't happened before," said Orla O'Connor, 33, from Cork in Ireland.

Mark Adams, a spokesman for the International Olympic Committee, hailed the participation of Shahrkhani and a female athlete from Qatar who competed in another event.

"It is a great symbol. It is a great message to women in those countries," he said. "Did we expect them to win gold medals? Probably not, but they're here, they're competing and I think we should be very happy."

Shahrkhani's opponent also had kind words, and said fears the hijab would get in the way, or even be dangerous, were overblown.

"There was no problem at all with the hijab. I think everyone has a right to their religion and to be given an opportunity," Mojica said. "This is no problem in judo."

In many ways, however, the young Saudi's story is just beginning.

Back home, some hard-liners have urged her not to jeopardize her place in the afterlife for a fleeting bit of fame on earth. Others have warned that she and her family could face ostracism when she goes home.

"She will definitely face difficulties (back home)," Hashem Abdo Hashem, editor-in-chief of Saudi's Arabic daily newspaper Okaz, told The Associated Press. "The society here will look at her negatively."

Saudi women face widespread restrictions in nearly all aspects of public and private life, particularly under guardianship laws that require them to have a male relative's permission before they can travel abroad, work, marry, get divorced or even be treated at some hospitals. It is also the only country in the world that forbids women – both Saudi and foreign – from driving. Some women who have challenged the driving ban have even been detained.

Recently, King Abdullah has pushed for some limited reforms in the face of opposition from the country's ultraconservative clerics. Women have been promised the ability to run and vote in municipal elections in 2015, and a new university near Jiddah allows men and women to study together in contrast to the strict general separation of the sexes across the kingdom.

The decision to allow Shahrkhani and another U.S.-based Saudi woman to compete in the games was an extension of those reforms.

After the match, Shahrkhani looked to the future, both for her and many other women in her country.

"Hopefully," she said, "this is the beginning of a new era."

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Associated Press reporters Aya Batrawy in Cairo, and Maria Cheng and Graham Dunbar in London contributed to this report

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