With the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles on the horizon, and still a few months to prepare, Moroccan hurdler Nawal El Moutawakel boarded a plane to start a journey into the unknown.

From Casablanca to Iowa. She was a 21-year-old, alone and in a place that she’d never been before, preparing for the world’s top sporting event. At the time, she did not know that she would become a pioneer, a symbol, a myth.


But six days after arriving in the United States, her father, who was her number one supporter, died.

“I learned my dad had passed away only three months after his death, when my brother came to see me,” she emotionally recalls during AIPS e-College meeting. Her family made a difficult choice – they kept the bad news from her so she could concentrate on living her dream. This was very likely what her father would have wanted.

But when she found out, time seemed to stop. Nawal doubted herself and her journey. Everything had lost its importance, and all she wanted to do was return home, to Morocco. “There is no place for me here in the States,” she remembers lamenting.

“My coaches Ron Renko and Pat Moynihan asked me to come to their office. And they said, now we have your passport, let’s sit and talk about your dreams and projects, if you leave here today and go back to Morocco, no return.”

So they convinced her to stay: “Your dad has been buried, he’s gone since three months now, please stay with us and you will be an amazing athlete.” Nawal eventually stayed but that did not make her any less devastated. She was tormented by the thought that her father died because of her.

“Maybe he was driving and thinking about his daughter. Maybe in his mind he was thinking that he should not have let me go to the States because of what people would say – I am a female, Moroccan and Muslim. Maybe he was not focused on his driving.” She had to take a class on death and dying to overcome her grief and heal ahead of the Olympic Games. Her coaches were of great help during this period.


And Nawal El Moutawakel would go on to become the first Moroccan, African and Muslim woman to win an Olympic gold medal that year in Los Angeles. “All it took me was 54 seconds and 61 hundredths of a second for my life to go from dark to light, from zero to hero. I was nobody and all of a sudden I became somebody,” she points out. 54.61 seconds, which were the result of many years of sacrifice – characterized by lack of resources, running in the forest, training at the beach and at a place filled with dirt in Casablanca. 54.61 seconds, which also changed the lives of many Muslim Arab women in the world, who look at Nawal as a role model.


The first call she received after her victory was from the Moroccan king, late King Hassan II. “We are 36 million Moroccans and here I was speaking to a king of a country, who really expressed highly his pride and the pride of the entire nation,” she enthuses.


Prior to the Games, Nawal could feel the pressure of carrying a whole nation on her shoulders. “I thought I was going to die, nightmares every night, I could not sleep, I lost so much weight, I was shaking the whole time.” She was the only female in the Moroccan Olympic team and one of the brightest prospects for a medal, thanks to her record-breaking performances at the Iowa State University. When the king invited the Moroccan team to his palace in Casablanca, he looked Nawal in the eyes and gave her a special message that spurred her more.

“And I said, I have been African champion, Arab champion Moroccan champion Mediterranean champion, French champion, NCAA champion, the only thing I need to do now and today is to grab that Olympic gold medal, I’m not going to lose it. I messed up at the World University Games in Edmonton. I messed up at the World Championships in Helsinki 1983. So this is the chance for me. It is now or never.”


After missing out on the Moscow Olympics in 1980 because of the boycott, Nawal saw the 1984 Games as her “time to shine” and within the years in between, she switched from sprints to the 400m hurdles. Joining the Iowa State University on full scholarship to study Physical Education and physiotherapy was another big step towards achieving excellence. “That was the turning moment of my life,” she confesses. There, her performance kept getting better with each race and she went to the Games as NCAA champion. “1984 was the year where I achieved many high-level performances and journalists started writing about this unusual athlete coming from an Arab, Muslim, African world daring to find herself a place in this high level field of competition.”

The day before the 400m hurdles final, her university coaches Ron Renko and Pat Moynihan visited her at the UCLA University Village to prepare her mentally. They were confident of her victory.

“I kept repeating to myself, with my coaches, the night before: you are the best, you must win, you have to win because you’re number one, and they would tell me to repeat this over and over and over again. And I understood how important it was to be mentally ready and strong. I understood the role of the coach during this specific moment.

“My coaches brought a chair for me and said we want you to stand on the chair and sing the Moroccan anthem. I said ‘I’m not going to sing it because my race is tomorrow and I don’t want to look too stupid’. They said tomorrow we already see you on the podium so please go ahead and sing. That moment for me, I will never forget it for the rest of my life.”


Unfortunately, Renko and Moynihan both passed away in a tragic plane crash over a year later in November 1985, which took the lives of seven members of the Cyclone athletics family. The Iowa State women’s cross country team was returning from the 1985 NCAA Championship when the sad incident occured. This was another low point and huge blow for Nawal. They were her family in the United States. “I could have gone crazy wild and I could have done crazy things,” she says. But the mental attitude she had acquired after her father’s death helped her cope. “I will always cherish the moments I lived with my dad, with my coaches and with my teammates.”


Nawal grew up in a sports-loving family. Her mother played volleyball, her father was a judoka and her siblings were also in the sports movement. So when she started athletics at age 15, she got their full support and joined a club in Casablanca, even though there were few women athletes at the time. “It was never forbidden for me to do what I really love to do.” The first time she discovered track and field was through black and white TV, when she watched Miruts Yifter from Ethiopia running the 10k. She was soon introduced to the national team, where she began to grab headlines. “My parents were really proud to see people bringing newspaper clips about their daughter to the office.”


In dealing with stereotypes, Nawal says, “I always use the P.M.A – Positive, Mental, Attitude – in my life. So whatever I wanted to do, I would go for it in a positive way.” She reveals that when she was competing in events across Europe, she was being given a few dollars because of “who I am and because of where I come from. I was labeled as the Moroccan, Muslim or African athlete and that really made me mad because we were stereotyped. But I was not competing because of the money. I was competing because of the love and passion for sports”.


At the height of her career, Nawal hung her spikes at only 25 years of age. She retired because of health issues – after dealing with lots of injuries – and “because women at that moment did not have enough recognition”.


Considering the fact that the Moroccan 1984 Olympic team was “a whole team of men” – from the athletes to the team officials, Nawal was the only female – Nawal began to ask herself, “what should I do to make this change?” This led her onto the path of sports administration, as she joined many commissions and working groups to champion women’s rights. “I’m proud that things have changed. The change is slow but it’s there. So we will continue pushing.”


Upon her return to Morocco in 1989, Nawal became a coach, but that did not last long as she soon switched to sports administration. Through the years she has served in different capacities across various national and international federations, including IAAF and FIFA. “Each time I presented my manifesto to become a member of any organization. I always use three points that I fight for; equity and parity, inclusion of the younger generations and the fight against doping.”

She was Minister for Youth and Sport in Morocco on two occasions. She recalls when former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch invited her to join a working group within the Olympic movement as a highlight of her life. She would go on to become an IOC member and vice president. But becoming president is not in her agenda. “For me to serve the Olympic movement is the highlight of my career.”


Nawal may have had the support of her family, which is vital, but that does not mean she did not have challenges. This is why she is always keen on reaching out to the younger generations “who maybe lived like me with no shoes, with no stadium, with no financial means but yet have dreams to become Olympic champions. How can I reach all these kids? So that’s when I started travelling around my country, around the continent of Africa, and then everywhere else whenever I was needed, I never said no”.

Source: Chibuogwu Nnadiegbulam| AIPS Media