El Moutawakel overcomes barriers to win hurdles gold

Few people have demonstrated the adage that sport can transcend a range of cultural boundaries quite like Moroccan hurdler Nawal El Moutawakel.

Women had never competed in the 400m hurdles at the Olympic Games prior to Los Angeles in 1984, and in becoming the inaugural winner El Moutawakel’s win was as impressive as it was unexpected.

The absence of the world-leading Eastern Bloc countries meant the field for the event was wide open, and the best times in the qualifying rounds were set by American Judi Brown and Ann-Louise Skoglund.

El Moutawakel, who had failed to qualify for the semi-finals at the world championships in Helsinki the previous year, won her heat easily enough but was some way behind the best in terms of time.

The African champion was in by far the fastest of the semi-finals and her third place behind Skoglund was comfortable enough but it looked like she had a lot of class to make up on the leading candidates.

It was a beautiful day in the Memorial Coliseum for the final and from the moment the starter’s pistol sounded there looked like only one winner.

She chased down her rivals on the back straight and only a slight stutter on the hurdle at the last bend looked like unsettling her run to the gold medal.

With millions watching back in her home town of Casablanca, she thrust her arms into the air as she crossed the line a good five metres ahead of Brown in second place.

As she milked the crowd’s applause, scenes of wild jubilation broke out in Morocco as she became her country’s first ever female gold medallist at an Olympics as well as being the first Muslim woman to triumph.

She has gone on to have a stellar career once she hung up her running spikes, becoming a council member at the IAAF and a senior member of the International Olympic Committee.