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Saudi woman's historic bow over in 82 seconds

August 03, 2012

Shaherkani was beaten by Melissa Mojica of Puerto Rico in the first round. -Photo by Reuters

LONDON: Judoka Wojdan Shaherkani, the first Saudi Arabian woman to compete at the Olympics, sobbed as she admitted to being overwhelmed by her historic debut which lasted just 82 seconds on Friday.

Looking nervous and wearing a black, swimming cap-style head covering, she was beaten by Melissa Mojica of Puerto Rico in the first round of the women's under-78kg category.

After the fight, where she barely mustered a challenge, the 16-year-old broke down in tears as she embraced her father, himself a judo referee.

“I'm proud, I'm happy and I want to continue in judo. I want to thank the fans for their support,” she said.

“I was disturbed and afraid at the beginning, it was my first time in a big competition and there was a lot of pressure because of the hijab issue.

“I was not comfortable because I didn't have any experience of big events. It took its toll on me.”

Shaherkani's case sparked a huge controversy after International Judo Federation president Marius Vizer had said she would not be able to fight in a hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf.

Judo rules ban any head-covering on safety grounds.

But Saudi officials had said their women – they have also sent 800m runner Sarah Attar – could only compete if they respected Islamic dress.

Shaherkani's participation was at risk until international judo and Saudi officials reached a compromise agreement to let her compete with a modified head-covering.

It covered the entire top of her head, while the back of her neck was masked by the collar of her judo suit. Several times she adjusted the cap, both before and during her bout.

Shaherkani was afforded a rousing reception both as she entered the mat and as she left it, as the crowd were fully aware of the significance of her moment.

Although she spoke at length to certain television stations afterwards, she left after only a few brief words to the written press.

Such was the interest in her historic story that the mixed zone at the ExCeL Arena was a huge scrum as scores of journalists jostled for position to speak to Shaherkani.

She was accompanied to the mat by her brother, who remained by her side throughout her media commitments.

The teenager has only been practising judo for two years and has a blue belt. If not for her special invitation, she would never have qualified for the Olympics.