Gold Medalist Nawal El Moutawakel Is a Symbol of Hope for Moroccans : Her Olympic Victory Was a Breakthrough

Times Staff Writer

Long before she won the 400-meter hurdles in the 1984 Olympics, the first time women had run that event in the Games, Nawal El Moutawakel of Morocco was breaking barriers.

That victory, though, was her biggest breakthrough. Her gold medal became a symbol of victory for African women, for Arab women, for Muslims, for the Third World.

To the watching world, El Moutawakel’s tears were tears of joy and pride. In fact, though, she was more amazed than anything else. She was amazed, because for her to even have made it to an Olympic final was almost beyond her hopes. To have won? It was simply amazing.


“I used to run with my dad,” El Moutawakel said, sitting behind the desk in Coach Ron Renko’s track office at Iowa State University. “He used to take us to the beach and draw a line like this and say, ‘When I do my hand like this, you run to me and stop.’ I used to beat my cousins and my brother. It was no big deal. My dad used to give me candy for winning.”

Mohamed El Moutawakel recognized his daughter’s aptitude, but was not sure how to direct it. Theirs was a society requiring that women’s bodies be fully covered. Most Muslim fathers would have been shamed if their daughters had competed against boys. But Mohamed El Moutawakel was not most fathers.

“My dad lived with some French people and he kept some of it,” El Moutawakel said. “He grew up, I would say.

“He always taught us the way these people lived and the way they taught their children. My dad was very liberal by Moroccan standards. When I traveled to Europe for track, I saw other societies and how people lived. When I came home, I would tell my father and my brothers how these people lived. We were a relaxed family, different from other Arab families.”

Nawal, 23, was discovered by the Moroccan track and field federation when she was 15 and outrunning all the boys in Casablanca. She began to travel with the national team when she was 17. She was immediately successful, but she was looking to get out. El Moutawakel and her father agreed that with the level of competition available to her in Africa, she wasn’t progressing. The more Nawal thought about her situation, the more convinced she became that she should look for a school in the United States.

At the World Championships in Helsinki in August of 1983, Nawal struck up a conversation with fellow African, Sunday Uti of Nigeria. Uti had a scholarship at Iowa State. Doing some long-distance recruiting, Uti left with El Moutawakel’s address and promised she would hear from the women’s track coach.


El Moutawakel shrugged.

“One day I got a big envelope from the States,” she said. “I showed my dad. They took it seriously. (Iowa State coaches) sent me forms to fill out. But we weren’t really sure.

“I put it away. I didn’t really think about it. It was a big decision. Then all of a sudden one day I started to fill out the forms. I took them to my father, ‘Here, I want you to sign this.’ He said, ‘You are going for real. Now we go 100%.’ ”

That meant eight hours a day of English language instruction. “It was going to be an adventure. He told me I would have to learn their language and their way of life.

“It is very unusual that a father lets go of his daughter in our society. He knew I had a skill and with a little bit of coaching I could improve it. My dad said, ‘Probably if you go to the United States and train, you can finish your school. Why not?’

“I was the first one in our family to leave Morocco, and a girl. My brothers, they had never been out of Morocco.”

Even so, she almost didn’t make it out. Her father was torn by his desire for his 20-year-old daughter to succeed and uncertainty over sending her to a foreign land with a very different society.

“My dad was crying when I left,” she said. “I had never seen him cry. I thought, ‘My dad is crying because I’m leaving?’

“He said he was going to bring me back. On our way to the airport, he said ‘No!’ and then he went back. He made the turn and he came back home. He said, ‘I got to get something.’ There was nothing. He was still thinking he didn’t want me to go anymore.

“On the plane, I was scared. I was crying the whole way. I wished the plane would turn and take me back to Morocco.”

El Moutawakel arrived at the airport in Des Moines on a severe January afternoon. Neither Renko nor Pat Moynihan, his assistant, was able to meet her at the airport. Instead, they dispatched a team member, who carried a sign with Nawal’s name and picture.

“This girl had my picture and my name on a paper,” El Moutawakel said. “I came up to her. ‘That’s me,’ I said. I thought she was also named Nawal. I didn’t know what my picture was doing there.

“She drove me to Ames (about 25 miles north of Des Moines). I didn’t know what was happening. I said, ‘Where are we going? Why are we driving so far? Where is Iowa State University? Are you Pat? Is Pat a man or a woman?”

Pat Moynihan was, and still is, a man--a 220-pound former hammer thrower from Princeton who spent more than a year in Saudi Arabia getting paid a lot of money to coach distance runners. He said that his experience in a Muslim country helped him in coaching Nawal. “I knew what not to do,” he said.

When Moynihan greeted Nawal in Arabic, a friendship was born.

“The first thing I noticed about her was that she was a dedicated athlete,” Moynihan said. “She decided that every workout had to be done with great intensity. Fine, but there were some workouts I didn’t want that. Luckily, I knew how to say, Shewa , slow down.”

Life moved fast for Nawal after her arrival. She made friends, and dug into her training and schoolwork.

She had barely settled in, it seemed, when she got a call from her oldest brother. She had been away from Morocco for a month and a half.

“My father had died (in a car accident) the first week I was here, eight days,” El Moutawakel said. “They decided not to tell me.

“My dad didn’t have any brothers or sisters, he was by himself. He had a lot of friends, and when they come to visit my mom after my dad’s death, they were telling my mom, ‘No, don’t tell your daughter that her father died. You have to wait.’ My mom didn’t know what to do, she was lost.

“My brother called me and he said, ‘I am coming.’

“I say what for?

“He said he is coming to see how I am doing. I asked who said that.

“He said, ‘My dad wants me to come over and see how you are living.’ I wasn’t sure what was going on.”

Nawal’s brother arrived in the midst of a fierce snowstorm and with the highway closed, he had to spend his first night in a farmhouse between Des Moines and Ames. He barely spoke English.

His duty was to tell his sister the details of their father’s death, and to take her back to Morocco.

“I packed all my stuff, I was ready to go,” she said.

“He said, ‘Now my dad is gone, you have to come back home. We need all of the family. We need all of us together. You can’t stay here. He was the one to support all of us. Now that he is not alive, you can’t be here by yourself.’

She didn’t go, though.

“Ron and Pat come and talked to me. I understood. I said, ‘My dad now is gone. He sent me over here to improve and to go to school.’ I end up staying here because I want to achieve his dream of what he wanted me to do.”

El Moutawakel prepared for the Olympics by packing in full indoor and outdoor seasons at Iowa State. Whereas many Olympic-bound athletes were delying the start of their seasons, she was running three and four events for Iowa State. She set a meet record in winning the hurdles at the NCAA championship meet and scored 24 of Iowa State’s 31 points.

With her college obligations taken care of, El Moutawakel was summoned to Morocco. She stood in the palace of King Hassan II, the only woman among Morocco’s assembled Olympians, and the monarch said, ‘I know you can bring a gold medal to your country.’

“I started looking around, and all the guys said, ‘He means you!’ ” she said. “I didn’t want to hear that because I know I can’t do it. All the way in the plane and in the Olympic village they kept saying, ‘Did you hear the king wants you to win a gold medal? You better do it!’

“I said, ‘No, I can’t, because everybody is so strong. How can I win?’ I called up Pat and Ron in Iowa. I felt so weak when I see those people chewing up hurdles. They go so fast, I felt so heavy. All those people, they are stars.”

Renko and Moynihan came to Los Angeles and trained Nawal, away from the other athletes. On the grass above Venice beach, they worked to reconstruct her confidence.

Meanwhile, Moroccan sports officials kept the pressure on her.

“The minister of sport came to see me the night before my race,” El Moutawakel said. “I was so scared, I was pale. I had goose bumps but it was hot outside. I had diarrhea. My ankle hurt. I said, ‘How do you want me to win?’

“He said, ‘Nawal, please don’t do that to us. I know you are going to win.’ ”

Unknown to El Moutawakel, two Moroccans sat outside her door the night before the final, shushing athletes in the hall.

El Moutawakel’s performance the next day silenced many critics. At 5 feet 2 inches, she was considered by many too short for the hurdles. “All I know is I feel good in my skin,” she said.

She led the race from the start, slowed slightly over the last two hurdles and still beat Judi Brown of the United States.

While the other runners were sprawled on the track, El Moutawakel stood still, hands over her eyes. She was sure she hadn’t won.

“After I crossed the finish line, I could see someone was next to me and I thought she won,” she said. “I couldn’t stop crying, I don’t know why.

“Judi Brown was crying with me. I said, ‘Stop. Don’t cry,’

“She said, ‘I’ll stop if you do.’

“So both of us were there crying. I told her I wish she had won because the Games are in her country. She said she was happy I had won.”

Indeed she had, and her time of 54.61 stood as one of the best marks of the year.

“I looked over and the sports officials from my country had a big flag for me to run with. I felt stupid to run. My shoulder was sore for carrying the thing.”

El Moutawakel brought the Coliseum crowd to its feet. She ran, crying. She mounted the winner’s platform, still crying. She cried through the Moroccan national anthem.

“I cried the whole day,” she said. “I cried but there were no tears anymore. The Moroccans, so many, were there and they were happy and singing. They were getting drunk and I was sitting there thinking, ‘Oh God!’ I still had my medal hanging there. I didn’t even take a shower until 1 in the morning.”

El Moutawakel was swept up by the Moroccan ship of state and the entourage took her from party to party, from interview to interview. The day turned to night and became a blur. She wanted to go back to the Olympic Village and see her friends. It was not possible, she was told.

At 3 a.m., she was taken to a television studio where she appeared on “Good Morning America.” When she finally was returned to her room, it was getting light. She couldn’t sleep. She didn’t sleep for 48 hours.

Nawal went home after the Games to spend a week with her family before going back to school in Iowa. She had had some inkling that her victory was being celebrated in Morocco. When she arrived at the airport, she learned just what her victory meant to the country.

“They stopped everything at the airport, all the planes. Nobody worked,” she said. “I couldn’t even talk to my mom, even though she was there. There was a big car waiting for us. We drove through the streets of Casablanca and there were so many people. All throwing flowers.”

And all throwing parties. Residents of Nawal’s neighborhood blocked off the streets, set up tables laden with food and danced with joy.

“I went upstairs to my house, but I couldn’t remember if it was our house. People were walking in and out, like it was a library. We couldn’t keep people out. The first day it was OK. The second day it was just going on and on. We had to call the police to have peace.”

The king was pleased, which is about the best thing that can happen to a Moroccan. Rumors began to circulate that El Moutawakel was given oil wells (Morocco doesn’t have any), that the king decreed that any female babies born Aug. 8 were to be named Nawal (some were), and that he had given Nawal a train (people in Morocco began to call the short, intercity train line Nawal because it ran fast).

The king began to take a more active interest in Nawal’s progress. When she returned to Iowa last fall, she injured her right knee. Actually, it had been injured when, at 6, she had fallen down the side of a mountain. It never healed properly and a bone chip floated around for years.

Three Iowa State doctors told Nawal that surgery was not immediately necessary. The king thought it was. He sent Nawal to Paris for observation by his personal physician. Against the wishes of the coaches at Iowa State, Nawal had surgery in Paris to remove the bone chip on Jan. 7, 1985.

“From the king’s point of view, his national treasure needed repair,” Moynihan said.

Morocco’s national treasure had become a treasure as well for the entire Arab world. Suddenly, El Moutawakel was a symbol. “Nawal’s father told her when she was growing up, that she would be famous and bring honor to her family,” Renko said.

She has done both.

“I feel a big responsibility,” she said. “In the Arab press, they don’t come to interview me to know what are my (track) goals, like the Americans and Europeans. They say, ‘How do you feel now that you are a symbol. You have saved Arabic women. Arabic women used to be in jail. Now that you won, it’s going to allow them to come out and work out and race. How do you feel?’

“I don’t know what I should say. They ask me political questions. I just don’t know what to answer. I say, ‘Hey, all this stuff is not for me.’ I don’t understand nothing from politics. I don’t know what I should do to make the women free in this world, the Arabic women. “All I know is that the obstacles I jump are true for me, the hurdles. I can touch them. They are concrete. I can jump them, I know that it is true.”

“They say, ‘You can’t imagine what you mean to other Arab women,’ but I know this. I read the newspapers and magazines. I receive much mail from girls who want to be like me. I understand the feelings of these women. But I don’t know how to be a symbol.”

What El Moutawakel wants is to be the world-record holder.

“In my life, I like to have a better situation,” she said. “I believe you should fight so you can be better. I do what I have to do to be the best. I don’t think I have reached my peak. I didn’t get the proper coaching until I was 20.

“My goal for 1986 is to break the world record. That has always been my aim and my dream, and the dream of my father. Now, it has come to mean much to my people.”