Nawal El Moutawakel has been breaking new ground since she ran barefoot through the streets of Casablanca 30 years ago as a young girl. In her own words, she became “the first Muslim, Arab, African woman to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games”. It was Los Angeles, in 1984, and that breakthrough was just the start of great change in her life.
She has become a role model for so many women. Last month, El Moutawakel was named Minister for Youth and Sports by King Mohammed VI in her native Morocco, where she has consistently widened the parameters for women through sport.
“Sport has given me so much that whatever I give back it will never be enough,” she explained to The Daily Telegraph. Powerful message. Powerful woman.
Nine years ago she organised the first Moroccan women’s 10 km race through the streets of Casablanca. It now attracts more than 27,000 participants annually. All women. The men – husbands, brothers and neighbours – now cheer from the windows and roadsides. It is a singular display of sorority.
She is also a member of the International Olympic Committee and was president of the IOC Evaluation Commission for the 2012 Games – one of those who helped make the decision about London’s validity to be the host nation.
One of El Moutawakel’s greatest passions, which she will endeavour to roll out through her new ministerial role, is the Courir pour La Vie project, which is being run as a pilot scheme at Imam Mouslim High School, in Ben Abid, a dusty roadside village 20 miles outside Casablanca. The innovative programme promotes sports among teenage girls living in rural locations. Its aim is to use sport as the vehicle to empower the confidence and independence of the girls so that they have the resources to continue their education rather than following the traditional pattern of leaving school in their mid-teens and later entering arranged marriages. It was an uplifting, inspirational place to witness in action. The pilot version of this project could go nationwide next year. At present, it involves 180 girls, aged 12 to 15, from six schools. They take part in a sports and social programme combining basketball, volleyball and football alongside citizenship activities – including subjects such as women’s health, hygiene and nutrition. The nationwide project will be launched by the Moroccan Sport and Development Association, and could impact on the lives of as many as 20,000 girls over the next three years.
It is one of 50 worldwide projects supported financially by the Laureus Sport For Good Foundation, for whom El Moutawakel is the vice-chair. The mission of the foundation is to utilise the power of sport to address social challenges through a worldwide programme of sports-related community initiatives. It has already improved the lives of more than 150,000 children.
The Daily Telegraph was given exclusive access to visit Imam Mouslim High School with El Moutawakel, and Laureus World Sports Academy members Daley Thompson and ‘Marvelous’ Marvin Hagler. It was certainly an eye-opener.
El Moutawakel explained: “In Morocco we have a king who believes in the youth, because they are the future of this society. These girls are amazing, how they have changed after a year because of sport. Look in their eyes, they have more self-esteem, they are being challenged.
“My athletic race was the 400m hurdles but it has been a metaphor for my life. It has been up and down, there are sometimes obstacles in the way. You have to get over the hurdles and keep running. When I won my gold medal in 1984, I was a shy woman from Morocco. People wanted to hear from me, ask me questions. I really didn’t know what to say. It was scary. I want these young girls to have the confidence which I learnt from being pushed into the limelight.”
Certainly, the project at the school has galvanised an entire community. It has seen the school repainted, with permanent running water, electricity, basketball court, volleyball net and poles – vital supplies often taken for granted in many other countries.
The boys cheered on the sidelines as the girls played aggressive, fast basketball. The parents, who had brought lunch for the visitors, clapped and cheered. A local zouk band had turned up and played their instruments. It was a festive atmosphere.
The mood intensified as Hagler and Thompson joined the players on court. It got rough. Hagler, one of the most ferocious fighters to make his presence felt in a boxing ring, took a break on the sidelines, showing the scratches on his muscular forearms. “Look at my arms. Those girls mauled me like tigers out there,” he said. “They are fantastic. So committed.”
Thompson, the former double Olympic champion, battled and grinned on the court. He said later: “Young children, boys and girls, should have equal opportunity in life. This is a perfect example of how sport can be used as the means to break down barriers and help give youngsters a real chance to improve their situation. This is a fantastic event which has played a significant part in changing perceptions in Morocco about the role of women in society.”
El Moutawakel, our heroine, looked on proudly. And well she might. She said: “The school has changed, the kids have changed, the community has changed. Sport has taught the girls what to eat, how to stay clean, how to be aware of their body, how to dance – it is all part of their wider education.
“If we can break the mould that inhibits so many young people, we can make a profound change both in my country and around the world. It’s not a revolution, it’s a celebration.”
This Article First Appeared On The Telegraph In 2007