When she claimed heptathlon gold at Atlanta 1996, Ghada Shouaa became the first, and to date the only, Syrian woman to win an Olympic title.
Growing up in rural Syria, Ghada Shouaa first realised her sporting potential at the age of 12 when she managed to catch a rabbit that had escaped from the hands of an old man in her village. She was soon harnessing her natural speed, competing in cross-country races. However, it was in basketball that she made her initial foray into the world of elite sport, and went on to play for the Syrian national team. Eventually, though, she recognised that athletics offered her greater prospects for international success. “In basketball, I had no chance of reaching the top at Asian or world level, but I knew that I could succeed in athletics if I worked hard. That was my dream, and I’m happy I was able to make it come true,” she explained. At the end of her teenage years, Shouaa discovered the heptathlon and was immediately seduced: “I loved the range of disciplines, which meant a lot of new challenges, and the need to constantly compete against myself and improve from one competition to the next.”
In 1991, Shouaa took part in a competitive heptathlon for the first time and set a new Syrian record with a points tally of 4,010. She then went on to compete at the World Athletics Championships in Tokyo, where she finished 24th with 4,425 points, and the Asian Games in Malaysia, where her score of 5,225 points was enough to give her the silver medal. Selected to represent Syria at Barcelona 1992, Ghada suffered an injury, but somehow managed to complete the two days to finish 18th with 5,278 points. Looking back, she reflected that “those first Games represented a decisive moment in my life.”
In 1995, she began working under former Olympic discus champion, Kim Burkhantsev of Russia, and it was a partnership that soon paid dividends. That same year, she went on to become world number one, confirming her new status by winning the annual Hypo-Meeting in Götzis (AUT) - the most important dedicated event for the world’s best heptathletes and decathletes - with a magnificent score of 6,715 points. And a few months later, she followed up with an emphatic first victory at the World Athletics Championships in Gothenburg (SWE).
In Atlanta’s Olympic Stadium in July 1996, Shouaa assumed the lead after just the second event, producing a leap of 1.86m in the high jump. She blew away the rest of the field in the shot with a throw of 15.95m, then won her 200m heat in 23.85. After a below-par 6.26m in the long jump, she recovered to set a new personal best in the javelin (55.70m), which put her out of reach going into the final event, the 800m. Crossing the line in 2:15.43, she raised her arms in triumph, knowing that her cumulative score of 6,780 points was enough to defeat Natalya Sazanovich of Belarus (6,653 pts) and Great Britain’s Denise Lewis (6,489 pts) and see her crowned as Syria’s first Olympic gold medallist.
After Atlanta, her career was marred by a series of injuries, but she still managed to compete at the 1999 World Athletics Championships in Seville (ESP), where she won bronze. However, Sydney 2000 proved, quite literally, to be a hurdle too far, as she pulled up in the first event, the 110m. Like Morocco’s Nawal El Moutawakel and Algeria’s Hassiba Boulmerka, Shouaa’s legacy has endured, serving as a major source of influential for aspiring athletes throughout the Arab world.
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