Archive for August, 2012

Wojdan Shaherkani – follow-up

Saturday, August 4th, 2012

A few notes following up on my post about Wojdan Shaherkani.

The universality clause

There's a special rule that made it possible for Shaherkani and the other Saudi woman, a runner named Sarah Attar, to compete:

A second International Olympic Committee spokeswoman, who declined to give her name, said both Saudi athletes were accepted under the Olympics’ “universality” clause. It allows athletes who didn’t meet qualifying times to compete when their participation is deemed important for reasons of equality.

The clause was invoked most memorably for Eric “the Eel” Moussambani, a swimmer from Equatorial Guinea, in the 2000 Olympics.

Attar's first Olympic race will be on Wednesday, August 8.

Double elimination

I notice Shaherkani did not fight again. No reason has been given that I know of, nor does there need to be as far as I'm concerned. [Update: A correction from Yonah: "The olympics are not double-elimination, they are modified single elimination. Only those that make it to the round of 8 are given a shot at a medal. Of the last 8, the first 4 to lose can only win bronze."]

Head covering

I can't imagine the head covering that Shaherkani wore will work as a long-term solution. It would surely come off in any serious matwork. I've seen matches where one player had a bandaged head, but if that bandage came off it was "only" an injury being aggravated, not a strict religious rule being violated.

Maybe someone could design a head covering similar to the headgear wrestlers wear to protect their ears? Could it be adjusted to allow for legitimate attempts at choking without injuring the opponent? What about sports hijabs like this and this — could they be modified to work for grapplers?

I thought it odd that fear of choking was one initial objection to allowing headscarves in judo:

judo officials claimed a headscarf could cause choking, in a sport that involves grabbing and throwing.

I'd imagine the more serious issue would be an adjustment to the rules so that the headwear may not be used to inflict a choke, as one may do with parts of one's own or the opponent's uniform.


I disagree with this description at

Before the fight, some other judo fighters worried that Shaherkani wasn't qualified to compete and suggested it could be dangerous for her to square off against Olympic athletes in the violent sport.

Those concerns faded quickly when the bout got under way. Shaherkani used a defensive strategy, trying to deflect Mojica's advances. She succeeded a few times before Mojica grabbed hold of her and swung her to the ground.

That's not how I saw it at all. I didn't see a "defensive strategy" succeeding a few times. I saw Mojica being extremely kind to an awkward and terrified teenager. Mojica was gentle with gripfighting and gentle with the throw, just as any experienced player with a shred of decency would treat a beginner in the dojo. Maybe I'm imagining this, but to me she made a point of finishing the match without hurting or humiliating her opponent. I was touched by that, and by her respectful bow as she shook Shaherkani's hand.

Wojdan Shaherkani

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

On Friday, August 3, 2012, a 16-year-old judoka named Wojdan Shaherkani became the first Saudi Arabian woman to compete in the Olympics.

I'm glad the precedent has been set, but seeing Shaherkani's judo, and reading that she's not terribly experienced and has never competed nationally, makes this weird for me. What I expected to see was an athlete sick of cultural obstacles and hungry to fight. What I saw was a girl who was in way over her head and could have gotten hurt. As I watched the match, one thing I liked very much was that her opponent was kind to her. [Update: The video at is no longer available. The only other video I've found of the match is here.]

I was surprised at her uniform. Her country couldn't provide her with one that fit? Or was the loose fit needed because of Sharia law? I know sleeves that are too short are not allowed; I thought there was a similar rule for sleeves that are too long. Was an exception made for her?

I have a feeling I'm missing the point, and her goal was never to fight so much as to break a barrier. It's not her fault if I made up some image of her in my head. If she does want to fight, I hope her country will let her train properly for 2016. And regardless of her future in judo, I hope she's duly proud of what she did today. You could argue that precisely because she isn't a seasoned competitor, it was that much braver.

Update: I heard the cheers when Shaherkani stepped on the mat, but I didn't see this part after the match:

For Shaherkani, stepping down from the mat after her contest to a standing ovation, it all got a little too much. She walked into the arms of her father, a judo referee who is also her trainer, and broke down in tears.