A young Saudi judo fighter's decisive defeat on the mat Friday is being hailed as a victory for women in the conservative Gulf kingdom, a step that would have seemed unimaginable if thousands of fans at the sprawling Excel Center and millions at home hadn't seen it with their own eyes.
Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani was one of just two women competing for Saudi Arabia at the games, the first time the Gulf state has sent female athletes at all. And she was only able to compete in judo after a compromise between Olympic organizers, the international judo federation and Saudi officials that cleared the way for her to wear a modified hijab.
Even that was unacceptable to hardliners, who said she was dishonouring herself by fighting in front of men, including the male referee and judges.
The crowd roared as Shahrkhani stepped onto the mat for her fight against Puerto Rico's Melissa Mojica wearing judo dress and what appeared to be a tight-fitting black cap.
The drama was not in seeing who would win. In a competition where everyone else holds a high level black belt, Shahrkhani has only attained a blue. Her father, Ali, summed up the odds his daughter was facing.
"They are champions she is fighting, and my daughter, for her it is the first competition," he said.
On the mat, the two heavyweights circled each other for about a minute before Mojica, the 24th ranked judo fighter in the world in her weight class, ended the contest in 82 seconds.
Shahrkhani looked tentative and unwilling to grab Mojica's uniform. Shahrkhani was mainly on the defensive, swatting away Mojica's attempts to get a grip. Shahrkhani seemed tentative and cautious on her feet and made little attempt to throw Mojica off balance.
Mojica eventually grabbed Shahrkhani with a secure grip on her collar, flipping her onto her back for a match-ending throw.
As she rose to her feet, Shahrkhani gently reached for her head to make sure the hijab was still in place. It was, and the two women bowed to each other and left to a loud ovation.
Afterward, the 18-year-old walked with her father past a scrum of journalists and television cameras.
"I am happy to be at the Olympics," she whispered in Arabic, her father holding both her arms. "Unfortunately, we did not win a medal, but in the future we will and I will be a star for women's participation."
It didn't take long for voices of support to pour in from the Middle East.
"Saudi judoka Wojdan Shahrkhani lost to her much more experienced competitor ... but many are proud of her," Saudi blogger and journalist Ahmed Al Omran tweeted.
Another Saudi resident, Alaa Al-Mizyen, added: "Wojdan remains a winner to me and millions of men AND women around the world."
A Saudi-born man who has a blog called Saudi Root wrote, "I'll walk out later with the Saudi flag around my neck & my head up high as if we won the biggest gold medal in the history of the Olympics."
Shahrkhani's opponent also had kind words, and said fears the hijab would get in the way, or even be dangerous, were overblown.
"There was no problem at all with the hijab. I think everyone has a right to their religion and to be given an opportunity," said Mojica. "This is no problem in judo."
In many ways, however, the young Saudi's story is just beginning.
Back home, some hardliners have urged her not to jeopardize her place in the afterlife for a fleeting bit of fame on earth. Others have warned that she and her family could face ostracism when she goes home.
"She will definitely face difficulties (back home)," Hashem Abdo Hashem, editor-in-chief of Saudi's Arabic daily newspaper Okaz, told The Associated Press. "The society here will look at her negatively."
Saudi women face widespread restrictions in nearly all aspects of public and private life, particularly under guardianship laws that require them to have a male relative's permission before they can travel abroad, work, marry, get divorced or even be treated at some hospitals. It is also the only country in the world that forbids women — both Saudi and foreign — from driving. Some women who have challenged the driving ban have even been detained.
Recently, King Abdullah has pushed for some limited reforms in the face of opposition from the country's ultraconservative clerics. Women have been promised the ability to run and vote in municipal elections in 2015, and a new university near Jiddah allows men and women to study together in contrast to the strict general separation of the sexes across the kingdom.
The decision to allow Shahrkhani and another U.S.-based Saudi woman to compete in the games is an extension of those reforms.
Associated Press reporters Aya Batrawy in Cairo and Maria Cheng in London contributed to this report
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