The International Olympic Committee’s coordination commission for the Rio 2016 Olympics is formed of thirteen members. Its only female member, who happens to be the commission’s chairperson and the vice president of the IOC, is Moroccan Olympic hero Nawal Al Moutawakel.
Upon winning the first ever women’s 400 meter hurdles event in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Moutawakel became not only the first Moroccan athlete, but the first Arab, Muslim and African woman to win a gold Olympic medal.
In honor of Morocco’s first Olympic champion, King Hassan II declared that all girls born on the day of her victory would be named Nawal. Her historic achievement was a leap forward for women in Morocco and the Arab world, where female participation in sports was still uncommon. Five years later, Moutawakel retired from the competition, but her remarkable impact on athletics continues to this day.
During a time when practicing sports was almost exclusively for males in the Arab world, the Iowa State University graduate committed herself to empowering women and fighting for equality between men and women in sports.
In 1993, she started a 5 kilometer run for women in her home city of Casablanca, aiming to motivate women to overcome social prejudice and practice sports. The race has become one of the biggest women’s races within the Arab world, as it includes around 30,000 participants.
Since then, the national icon has occupied many executive positions in the sports world.
Al Arabiya quotes her as saying, “Someone once said the future of sport is feminine, and I believe that. You cannot move forward without both legs, men and women. Complete integration is important, but increased female presence at major sports events is not enough. We want full inclusion in administration. Women are present in all activities, so why can’t they be leaders in sport?”
In 1997, Moutawakel became the secretary of state to the minister of Social Affairs, responsible for Youth and Sport. Ten years later, she was appointed as the minister of Youth and Sport.
Moutawakel was selected to be a member of the International Olympic Committee in 1998, becoming the first Muslim woman to join the committee. She was a member of the executive board from 2008 to 2012. In 2012, Moutawakel became the vice president of the IOC.
Moreover, she was the chairperson of the evaluation commission that assessed candidate host cities for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. She is also a member of the evaluation committee for the 2024 Olympics. Additionally, she has been a member of several specialized commissions such as Women in Sport, Public Affairs and Social Development Through Sport, and Nominations.
The champion has gone a long way since being spat on and verbally abused for running barefoot in the streets of Casablanca, yet she continues to battle for women’s rights by embodying an example of a successful, competitive and progressive female leader.
"I was a hurdler and I am used to jumping barriers. In 1984, I was the only woman in the Moroccan team of 100 in Los Angeles. My ambition after that was to have women represented differently. Life is full of hurdles and I have learned to be patient and take them one at a time," she told the Telegraph .