2010 Laureus Awards Interview: Nawal El Moutawakel Shows a Game Can Shape Life

Bleacher ReportSenior Writer IMarch 9, 2010

A refrain you hear quite frequently in the United States of America is the old saying, "it's only a game."

To some degree, the phrase rings true.

Nobody should be jumping off a bridge or sinking into a dark pit of despair because his or her team didn't win the big game. Peyton Manning shouldn't be moping around like someone took the jelly out of his donut simply because he didn't perform well with the bright lights amped up in this year's Super Bowl.

No, individual games and performances are not hills upon which to die.

However, widen the lens beyond an isolated game. Allow the filter to catch the phenomenon of SPORT and our opening phrase is as false as false can be.

This is essentially the idea behind the Laureus World Sports Awards and Sport for Good Foundation—the influence of athletics can be profound if used wisely.

It's why the ceremonies were cancelled last year in the horrible economy—what money had been raised was needed for the Foundation and it hardly made sense to pour the resources into a glamorous ceremony.

It's also why the unique athletes honored were chosen as representatives for the organization—either as winners or as members of the Laureus World Sports Academy.

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Don't believe me?

Fine, then permit me to introduce (to many of you) the Moroccan hurdler, Nawal El Moutawakel.

She is the first Muslim woman from the African continent to win gold at the Olympics. Ms. El Moutawakel accomplished the feat at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, winning the inaugural 400-meter hurdles. The victory propelled her to such honors as a position in her country's cabinet, a spot on the International Amateur Athletic Foundation, and a membership on the International Olympic Committee.

More importantly, the win and the sport gave her a voice and a platform from which to trumpet.

Good thing, too, because you will be hard-pressed to find a more eloquent and impassioned utilitarian of either.

Conversant in at least three languages and incredibly articulate in at least two, the former Olympian's words are practically contagious no matter the language—granted, I can only vouch for the English because I don't speak Arabic or French.

It is impossible to reproduce her vibrant zeal in the static medium of print (what's this thing called a..."video camera?"), and that is a shame.

Because it's tremendous to behold.

When she tells you that "the future belongs to the feminine in [the Persian Gulf States]," any argument to the contrary dies before the first synapses fire.

To hear her tell of practicing for, attending, and emerging victorious from those Games without a single other Moroccan female upon which to lean (no female coaches, no female trainers, no female teammates, nada) is to develop a minute appreciation for triumph in the face of sincere adversity.

James Brown once said, "This is a man's world." In 1984, the soon-to-be gold medalist lived his words every second of her Olympic experience.

She didn't let it stop her.

Only the exceptional athlete can win gold, which means we're probably lacking the proper adjective to describe Nawal El Moutawakel's deed.

Even so, the medal is not the ultimate prize, here.

To watch her face as she juxtaposes her experience with the current status quo, to see the smile radiate when she tells of other Muslim women who've thanked her for being an inspiration and a source of courage, is to be enlightened by the gospel of sport as a powerful agent of change.

Real change.

Like the kind of change that has swaths of the Middle East embracing a role for women in society through athletics.

For Americans, this might be difficult to appreciate. It might seem like a small thing, a baby-step toward a far larger and long overdue moment.

When you see the General Secretary of the Abu Dhabi Sports Council, His Excellency Mohammed Ibrahim Al Mahmood, sitting next to Ms. El Moutawakel and delivering almost the exact same message (in equally impressive English or Arabic), you understand an inch can be a mile in the right context.

You understand that, where all else has failed, that trivial thing—sports—is making tangible progress.

Our public record is full of entries detailing the history of discrimination against women in the Muslim world. Yet that public record isn't written in stone and people from that world —devout Muslims like Ms. El Moutawakel or His Excellency—are doing their part to see it amended with etchings of modern equality.

And they're using sports to do it.

So is Catherine Freeman.

The Australian, who won gold at the Sydney Games in 2000, started The Catherine Freeman Foundation to help young indigenous children in her native land.

So is Edwin Moses, the American hurdler supreme, who became the first Chairman of the Laureus World Sports Academy at its genesis in 2000 and still holds that post today.

So is Boris Becker, Monica Seles, Emerson Fittipaldi, and all the other Laureus members from across the globe who've yet to make an appearance.

Yep, it's only a game.

But, as Laureus and its athletes prove with each passing day, it can be much more.


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