Qatar's women win more than gold

London 2012 was the first time all nations included women in their teams
This article featured on Al Jazeera English.

The last time London hosted the Olympic Games it was 1948 and these words proudly hung over the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony.

The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part.

These words were first spoken by the founder of the modern games Baron de Coubertin. Since then they have been paraphrased by mums and dads across the world when dealing with overzealous children.

But is it really the taking part that counts?

Try telling the most successful Olympian - American swimmer Michael Phelps - this and he would playfully splash water at you. Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt’s reaction is likely to be equally amusing.

But perhaps Coubertin's words of encouragement shouldn’t be so quickly mocked.

Because Olympic champions are only made if they are allowed to take part.

On Sunday August 5th, I met three inspiring young women on their way home after being knocked out in the early stages of the Olympics. But there was not a tear of disappointment nor look of resignation between them.

These athletes had already won something more valuable than an Olympic gold, or even eight – the chance to take part.

64 years on from London’s last Olympics, Qatar had sent four female athletes to the Games for the first time. In fact, London 2012 was the first time all nations had included female members.

Baron de Coubertin’s words would not have been out of place at Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony.

While talking to sprinter Noor Al-Malki, swimmer Nada Arakji and table tennis player Aia Mohamed it became clear how important their presence at the Games was.

These three friends – who proudly donned their maroon Qatari tracksuits and spoke of missing the Olympic Village – were the real history makers of the Games.

And by being part of the greatest sporting competition in the world - they are blessed. They have already fulfilled ambitions that were dreams to their mother's and grandmother's generation.

Noor, Nada and Aia symbolise a change in attitude toward’s women competing at the highest levels in their conservative nation. And with only 52 years between them they have their whole sporting careers ahead.

But now their Olympics are over, will they receive the support needed to one day win gold? Or are they just figureheads to appease the IOC and equal rights groups?

Although they wouldn’t be drawn on whether they faced discrimination or barriers during their journey to the Games, one thing they openly shared was a delight at being able to inspire peers and future generations.

“I was so proud at being able to represent my country. It felt great being there and entering the stadium” said 50m freestyle swimmer Nada Arakji.

“Being the first Qatari female swimmer at the Olympics will encourage younger generations to take up the sport.”

Sporting ambition

Quite understandably, at no stage did table tennis player Aia Mohamed feel the Olympics was a right of passage.

“The Olympics was in my heart but I didn’t realise I would be here. It is like a dream come true. I want younger players to live what we have just lived,” Aia said with emotion.

“It is every athletes dream to reach the Olympics and thank god I achieved that dream, and hopefully I will be there in Rio in 2016.”

Qatar - the host of the 2022 Football World Cup – is busy developing itself as a sporting cultural hub.

Despite losing out on the bid for the 2020 Olympics, Qatar will pursue the Games in the future.

“It is really important to host events like the World Cup because people from other countries will come and they will know we can do it. We have all the facilities in place and Qatar will bring lots of new things to the event,” said Aia.

It is hard to argue that Qatar does not have the resources to entertain the world but question marks still hang over their attitude to women pursuing Olympic success.

However, at such times as these criticism is unfair. By bringing women to the Olympics, Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia have taken huge strides forward. They have been working closely with the IOC and there's no reason to believe this conversation will breakdown.

All three athletes I met were vocal (very vocal) about the huge amount of support they receive from friends, family, coaches, teachers, authorities and other athletes.

“Qatar supports us. Qatar is proud of us,” says 100m runner Noor Al-Malki.

So what next for these girls who quietly disappear from the Games without the hysteria that surrounds Michael Phelps, Ye Shiwen or Usain Bolt?

Will they one day stand on the podium celebrating gold instead of wondering whether they will be allowed to take part?

Yes, this small, young crop of female athletes have won their first battle – but the battle on the track, in the pool or by the table tennis table has only just begun.

Winning - that has to be the next step.

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