Habiba Ghribi: Tunisia’s First Female Olympic Champion

First placed Yulia Zaripova (R) of Russia and second placed Habiba Ghribi of Tunisia celebrate after the women’s 3000m steeplechase final during the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium August 6, 2012. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez (BRITAIN)

Tunisia’s Habiba Ghribi brought home the country’s second medal (a silver) today and also became the first woman from the region to medal at the London Games, as well as the first female medalist ever for Tunisia!

Ghribi, 24, is from Kairouan and competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, ranking 13th in her discipline, the 3000m Steeplechase. She then had surgery on both of her feet, leaving her bedridden for most of 2010. Despite the hardship, Ghribi came back quickly, becoming the first Tunisian woman to win a medal (the silver) at the IAAF World Championships in 2011.
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Weekend Medal Update: Tunisia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait

Saudi Arabia’s equestrian team jumping members celebrate with their bronze medals in Greenwich Park at the London 2012 Olympic Games August 6, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings (BRITAIN)

It was an eventful weekend for the region, as Iran brought home its second medal (a gold!) and Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait all won their first medals of the London Games.

Iran’s first gold of the Games was awarded to Hamid Mohammad Soryan Reihanpour in Men’s 55kg Greco-Roman wrestling. It is the second Olympics for Reihanpour, who came in fifth in Beijing.
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A Medal for Iran

Iran’s Kianoush Rostami drops the weights during the men’s 85Kg group A weightlifting competition at the ExCel venue at the London 2012 Olympic Games August 3, 2012. REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler (BRITAIN)

Today, weightlifter Kianoush Rostami won Iran’s first medal of 2012, a bronze in the Men’s 85kg category. Rostami is the 2011 World Champion in his weight class, and also ranked #1 in the 2010 and 2011 Junior World Championships.

Since its first in 1948, Iranians have brought home a dozen medals in the sport, including four golds. The last competitor from the country to medal in the sport was “The Iranian Hercules,” Hossein Rezazadeh, considered to be one of the greatest weightlifters of all time.

Rostami, aged 21, therefore joins a long tradition of weightlifting success in Iran. The country will have one more chance at a gold in the sport when Saeid Mohammadpourkarkaragh competes in the Men’s 94kg category tomorrow.

Iraqi Dreams for the Women’s 100m Sprint

Iraq’s Dana Abdul Razak reacts during her women’s 100m preliminary at the London 2012 Olympic Games in the Olympic Stadium August 3, 2012. REUTERS/David Gray (BRITAIN)

This morning’s heats for the Women’s 100m held both triumph and heartbreak for the region. The first heat, in which two women from the region competed, was triumphant, with Iraq’s Dana Abdul Razzaq second. In the second heat, Omani Shinoona Salah Al-Habsi and Fatima Sulaiman Dahman of Yemen came in fourth and last, respectively, failing to qualify. Libyan Halah Gezah came in fifth in Heat 4, but the real heartbreak for the region occurred in the third Heat, when young Qatari athlete Noor Al-Malki—nursing an obvious injury—fell to the track, failing to complete the race. The 17-year-old Al-Malki was amongst the first Qatari women to ever compete in the Olympics. On Twitter, many supporters shared their devastation:

But Dana Abdul Razzaq, the only athlete to train in Iraq for the 2008 Games, still has a strong chance at the gold. The 26-year-old sprinter, who was the flagbearer for this year’s Games, won the 100m dash at the 2011 Arab Games.

Saudi Arabia’s First Female Competitor

Saudi Arabia’s Wojdan Shaherkani (R) fights with Puerto Rico’s Melissa Mojica during their women’s +78kg elimination round of 32 judo match at the London 2012 Olympic Games August 3, 2012. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon (BRITAIN)

Wojdan Shaherkhani was never expected to win. The 16-year-old heavyweight judoka is less experienced than her competitors; she only holds a blue belt. Nevertheless, she made history this morning as the first woman ever to compete for Saudi Arabia.

Though Shaherkhani lost the match to Puerto Rican competitor Melissa Mojica, she recognized her moment in the spotlight. According to NBC, immediately after her match she said she was “happy to be at the Olympics,” adding: “Unfortunately, we did not win a medal, but in the future we will and I will be a star for women’s participation.”

Shaherkhani has the support of her father as well; an international judo referee, he attended his daughter’s first-ever international match, noting to NBC the odds she was up against.

Though the young judoka faced criticism and even insults from some of her countrymen online, there was also plenty of support:

The Powerful Women Judokas of the Middle East and North Africa

Soraya Haddad of Algeria back flips after defeating Sholpan Kaliyeva of Kazakhstan during their women’s -52kg bronze medal judo match at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games August 10, 2008. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon (CHINA)

In the UK’s Telegraph today, sports columnist Andrew M. Brown opines that it’s “disturbing” to watch female judokas “beat each other up.” Brown, acknowledging that his forthcoming comment will sound “appallingly sexist,” says it anyway: that he “couldn’t help wondering about [the judokas’] soft limbs battered black and blue with bruises.”

Brown’s statement—which is appallingly sexist indeed—needs no comment. Women’s judo, which was first introduced in 1988 as a demonstration sport, and made official in the 1992 Games, has become increasingly popular over the years, with women from more than 30 countries in every region of the world competing in London across seven weight categories.

Algeria (one of whose competitors, 2008 bronze medalist in the -52kg weight class Soraya Haddad, is nicknamed the “Iron Lady of El Kseur”), Lebanon, Israel, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, and even Saudi Arabia have sent judokas (nearly all of whom are under 30, and two of whom are teenagers) to compete in the women’s events this year. Though thus far none have had much success—all of the weight categories except the women’s +78kg have concluded competition—their participation demonstrates just how popular the sport is becoming.

In the +78kg competition, which is scheduled for tomorrow Turkey’s Gulsah Kocaturk, and Tunisia’s Nihel Rouhou Cheikh, and Algeria’s Sonia Asselah have a shot at medaling. Also competing is one of Saudi Arabia’s two inaugural female Olympians, Wojdan Shaherkani, a 16-year-old judoka who was invited to participate by the IOC and recently emerged triumphant after a dispute as to whether she’d be allowed to wear her hijab. 16-year-old Shaherkani, who does not hold a black belt, is not expected to medal; in fact, some of her peers expressed concern at allowing her participation. Her competing nonetheless represents a significant step for Saudi Arabia, which still disallows women’s participation in school sports.

Women from the region have medaled in judo before: In 1992, Israeli middleweight Yael Arad brought home silver (and became the first Israeli to win an Olympic medal) and Turkish extra lightweight Hülya Şenyurt a bronze. Algeria’s Soraya Haddad scored a bronze in Beijing in 2008.

The International Judo Federation recently had this to say about women’s participation in the sport:

Our top female athletes are amongst the fittest and strongest in the world and we aim to use them along with other women as roles models to promote our sport and to use judo to empower women and girls. Women will not do this alone we need the support of our male judoka as only by working together successfully can we remove the barriers to gender equality that still exist.

In the end, tomorrow’s Women’s +78kg competition could mean another medal for the region. What’s more empowering than that?

The Sultanas of the Net

Turkey’s players celebrate after winning the first set against Serbia during their women’s Group B volleyball match at Earls Court during the London 2012 Olympic Games August 1, 2012. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado (BRITAIN)

Turkey’s Women’s Volleyball team is on a roll in London. Though they lost 3-2 in their match with Brazil, they’ve beaten both China (3-1) and Serbia (3-0) and are poised to head to the quarterfinals.

Still, the team has some tough competition ahead: On August 3, they go up against Korea, which has beaten both Brazil and Serbia. Their final competitor in this round is the United States, which has won against Korea, Brazil, and China. Still, the Turkish team needs only to make it into the top 4 of their group to move ahead, and as they’re currently in third place, that seems like a likely bet.

The team, whose members range in age from 22 to 32, are nicknamed Filenin Sultanları, which translates into “Sultanas of the Net.”

Egypt’s First: Fencer Alaaeldin Abouelkassem Takes Silver

Gold medallist Lei Sheng (C) of China poses next to silver medallist Alaaeldin Abouelkassem of Egypt and bronze medallist Choi Byungchul South Korea during the award ceremony for the men’s individual foil fencing competition at the ExCel venue at the London 2012 Olympic Games July 31, 2012. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj (BRITAIN)

On Tuesday, 21-year-old fencer Alaaeldin Abouelkassem took home Egypt’s first medal, a silver in the men’s individual foil. After winning, the young athlete struck a goofy pose with his fellow competitors and their medals. Abouelkassem’s silver medal is Egypt’s first ever for fencing.

Egypt has a storied Olympic history. The country first participated in the 1912 Games (and in fencing, no less), and has sent athletes to most editions of the Summer Games since (it has also, once, sent an athlete to the Winter Games). Egypt has won a total of 24 medals, including a total of seven gold. Last time the country competed in London—at the 1948 Games—they took home a total of five medals.

Abouelkassem will also compete in the men’s team final, set to take place on August 5.

Qatar Wins First Medal for the Region

Qatar’s Nasser Al-Attiya discharges the round from his rifle during the men’s skeet qualification round at the Royal Artillery Barracks during the London 2012 Olympic Games July 31, 2012. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton (BRITAIN)

Congratulations are in order to the diminutive Gulf country, which just won the region’s first medal. The medal, a bronze, went to skeet shooter Nasser Al-Attiya today.

The 41-year-old Al-Attiya, whose Olympic profile says his nickname is “The Joker,” is also a rally driver. His brother, Abdulaziz Al-Attiya, is also a competitive shooter. This is his first time competing in the Olympic Games.

This is Qatar’s eighth Games, and its third medal.

Women of the Middle East Are Shooting for Gold

Qatar’s Bahya Mansour Al Hamad takes aim during the women’s 10m air rifle qualification competition at the London 2012 Olympic Games in the Royal Artillery Barracks at Woolwich in southeast London July 28, 2012. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh (BRITAIN)

Why is shooting such a popular sport for women in the region?  Since it was introduced in 1984, the sport has seen widespread participation from women in the region.  It was the first sport into which Iran entered a woman—Manijeh Kazemi in 2000—and has continued to gain popularity in that country, as well as others.

One hypothesis as to its popularity may lie in the fact that it’s easy for governments to accept women’s participation, due to kits that cover the athlete from head to toe.  There is no conflict, for example, between the shooter’s uniform and hijab: This year, at least seven female competitors from six countries wear the headscarf.  And while the sport most certainly requires skill and precision, it does not require elaborate facilities or overall physical fitness.  This year, among the female shooters was eight-months-pregnant Malaysian competitor Nur Suryani Mohd Taibi, who found out about her pregnancy shortly after qualifying for the Olympics. Continue reading