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Olympic Barriers: Will This Be The First-Ever Woman (And Muslim) IOC Chief?

Nawal El Moutawakel was ignored by Morocco when competing in the 1984 Olympics -- until gold made her a national hero. Now she's looking to clear another hurdle or two.

"To see a woman here would be innapropriate," said Baron Pierre de Coubertin...
"To see a woman here would be innapropriate," said Baron Pierre de Coubertin...
Giulia Zonca

Even a woman used to revolutions like Nawal El Moutawakel considers the idea of a female President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) a bit far-fetched. And there, in that traditional world, one so masculine and decidedly conservative that the times move at different rhythms.

The IOC has had eight Presidents in its more than 100-year history, and all have been male and almost all European. The only exception is American, Avery Brundage, who has hardly gone down in history for his democratic vision: He was head of the U.S. Olympic Committee when the States decided to substitute some Jewish athletes for the Games of Berlin in 1936, and was in charge of the IOC when Tommie Smith and John Carlos were stripped of their medals in 1968 for the Black Power salute.

After him, and after the terrible events of the Munich Massacre in 1972, the Committee returned to absolute rigor and the top position has always been occupied by a man from the "Old Continent"; an Irish Baron, a Spanish Francoist and a Belgian orthopaedic surgeon. Current President Jacques Rogge, the inscrutable Belgian, already represents the most progressive leader yet.

And if Rogge, an ex-athlete (he represented Belgium in the Olympics for yachting and played rugby for the national team) as well as a skilled mediator, might consider a break with the past, perhaps he could figure out how to encourage the nomination, which is still unofficial, of an African, a Muslim, a woman -- all in one name.

In 1984, Moroccan runner Nawal El Moutawakel changed history. She'd dreamed of competing in the 400-meter Olympic hurdles, but was faced with the fact that competing and winning were forbidden words for women in her native country. So El Moutakwakel set out for the Los Angeles Games without the support of Morocco, ashamed by her presence. That all changed when they saw her on the podium, awarded the gold medal. King Hassan II telephoned after she won: "To celebrate you, all girls born today will be named after you!"

From a "bad example" to a national icon whose fame has never wavered. But now she may come up against the most daring challenge yet: "Head of the IOC? Why not," she told La Stampa. "And now that women are equal, the future of sport is feminine. Look at London, equality in every discipline, including boxing, teams with a feminine majority and I'm talking about the U.S. and Germany."

The contenders have not been announced yet, another IOC rule, with candidates only made public in June, and the vote at the beginning of September. But it's clear that some support has begun to coalesce around El Moutawakel, a member of the committee since 1998 and Vice President since 2012.

Speaking from Brazil, where she's coodinating the committee that is monitoring Rio 2016 (she had a similar role for London 2012) she said: "I know that there are many candidates and that there is still a lot of time to decide, but I feel like the spokesperson of a movement." And it's not just of women, the circle that supports El Moutawakel is growing and even Rogge might line up behind her, as he has always praised her work.

The other top contenders include Rogge's right-hand man, Thomas Bach, a German who won gold in Montreal 1976 for fencing; Richard Carrion, 60, an economist and head of the Banco Popular of Puerto Rico, who has managed IOC funds and negotiated all the contracts; and Ng Ser Miang, 63, an IOC vice-president from China.

For El Moutawakel, it has been a steady climb to the cusp of potential worldwide sporting influence. She moved into politics after retiring from competition, and became Morocco's Sports Minister. In 1993, she organized a 10km pink "fun run," and now every year in Casablanca, 30,000 girls run in front of their husbands, fathers and brothers. She believes in diplomacy, the IOC school taught her to move with slyness and a refined calmness.

Still, she knows that even just admitting she wants the presidency will make noise. The odds are stacked against her, but she clearly thinks it's worth the effort. The original holder atop the modern Olympic hierarchy was Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a staunch supporter of a mens-only games: "To see a woman here would be innapropriate," he stated. While he was referring to the athletes, others today still think the same thing about the leadership of the Olympic Committee. But we should not forget that El Moutawakel, the former hurdler, has been clearing obstacles all her life.

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