1936. 1968. 2012.
A single thread of humanity joins these three historic Olympic dates. From Owens defying Hitler, to the Black Power salute of Smith and Carlos, to the victory sign at the opening ceremony of Shaherkani.
This spring, when the current Olympic super-athletes like Phelps, Ye Shiwen, Bolt or Sharapova were still preparing for London, I organized a school Olympics in Madrid. A young boy of just 13 moved us all by continuing to the finish line in the mini-marathon, despite being completely exhausted and by far the last student running. His nose ran, his eyes watered with tears. But the boy wanted to finish the race, and did just that.
I decided to hand him our 'Olympic moment' trophy on the last day of the event, but the headmaster of the school objected: 'we have to be careful, because this boy is not popular among students, if we give him this trophy he could be bullied even more than he is being already.' I persisted and handed him the trophy. The Olympics (even the school Olympics), after all, are not just about those who finish first. They are about defying the bullies.
They are about those who, despite all the odds and with no hopes at all of winning, participate. Who move us in front of the television screen with their effort, making us jump and howl and clap and moan. The Olympics are about those who try to finish their race. Despite the odds against them.
That pre-Olympic moment sprang to my mind when observing the first week of competition in London. There have been plenty of stunning sporting performances. But the moment that struck me as that 'Olympic moment' was the participation of two first-time female Olympians: the Saudi Arabian Wojdan Shaherkani and Qatar's Noor Hussain Al-Malki.
In particular the victory sign displayed shyly by Shaherkani was my highlight of the opening ceremony. Not James Bond, not Mr. Bean, not the Queen, but that simple gesture was a significant moral victory for the first Saudi Arabian woman to participate in the Olympic Games. It will remain for eternity alongside the powerful black-gloved salute of Smith and Carlos in Mexcio City.
Her judo fight may just have lasted little over a minute, but the effect that Shaherkani's participation can and must have upon future generations in the Arab world is worth thousands of hours of inspired training. There are those who caution that this is only a symbolic gesture. That may be so. A source in the Arabian women's sport scene told me that there is still a long way to go for these girls. But it is equally true that every journey must begin somewhere.
When I met Qatar's first football team a few years ago, they had only just begun to practice as a team, but the excitement at breaking stereotypes and long-entrenched perceptions was palpable.
This year, just ahead of the Olympics, I talked to Qatar's first athlete, Al-Malki. "My level is still not good enough to be a role model," she said. "But I will try my best to be a role model in the future. My Qatari sisters should grab these opportunities, get out of the house and develop their skills in the sport they like."
Al-Malki may not have finished her first round race on Friday, pulling up with an injury after just ten meters, but she will inspire thousands of Arab girls who will dream of finishing their race at a future Olympics.
"Once my active athlete time is over I would like to give back my experience and knowledge to the next generation of young girls," Al-Malki added, aware that she is sounding the starting shot for a wave of future athletes. "For them to be better than me, I would like to work as a coach or administrator in sport."
Michael Phelps was stunning, of course. As was Federer. And Shiwen. But Shaherkani and Al-Malki mattered, as future generations will show.
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