FOR most athletes at the London Olympics, their battle starts when they take their place on the starting blocks.

But for Wojdan Shaherkani and Tahmina Kohistani, just taking part in London felt like a gold medal victory.

To reach the Games, they have had to overcome political, social, religious and sporting obstacles.

Judoka Shaherkani’s Olympics lasted just over a minute this morning, but the fact she made it to her bout with Puerto Rico’s Melissa Mojica meant it was a revolutionary moment for the women of Saudi Arabia.

The country’s ultra-conservative clergy tried to destroy her ambitions to be Saudi’s first female Olympian, before an argument about the type of headscarf she should wear jeopardised her place at the 11th hour.

And though Afghanistan’s Kohistani trailed in last in the 100m – in a time of 14.42sec – the warm appreciation of the London crowd who recognised her historic feat must have been the greatest of feelings.

She has suffered months of harassment from men who don’t believe women should be permitted to play sport.
Both have made a strong statement to the people of their respective countries and the world with their determination to take part and their dignity.

As did Noor Hussain Al-Malki, only the fourth female athlete from Qatar to enter the Olympics, who lasted just a dozen strides before pulling up injured in her 100m heat.

The record books will show DNF – did not finish – but they were significant strides.

Shinoona Salah Al-Habsi of Oman and Sulaiman Fatima Dahman from Yemen were unlikely to trouble the favourites for gold, but as they sprinted down the track in the Olympic Stadium wearing colourful hijabs there was a sense of progress.
Shaherkani, just 16, comes from Saudi Arabia, a country of ultra-Conservatism where women are banned from driving and cannot leave the house without a male chaperone, let alone compete in the biggest sporting event in the world in front of millions around the world.
She had been rocked by the barbs of the country’s clergy, who strongly discourage female participation in sport in any form and labelled her the “Prostitute of the Olympics”.

Her family have been bombarded with racial abuse, according to reports, with many trying to claim Shaherkani did not represent their country.

There was then a row which threatened to end her chances once and for all. Her national Olympic Committee said she could only compete if she was wearing a hijab – a hair covering worn by many Muslim women.

But judo’s governing body was worried that a head covering could be dangerous in the grapples and tumbles of the sport.

Shaherkani was powerless – a political pawn – as negotiations went backwards and forwards between the two until a compromise was reached.

And so she strode out – a little tentatively but energised by cheers from the British crowd as loud as any reserved for home athletes – wearing a tightly-wrapped black headscarf.

But there was another problem – Shaherkani is only a blue belt, two below her opponent Melissa Mojica, and the outcome was inevitable.

A little later, Kohistani lined up in heat four of the women’s 100m.
Alongside her were competitors from Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Micronesia, Cape Verde and San Marino – countries smaller than Afghanistan but light years ahead in terms of sporting equality.

The 23-year-old raced in a headscarf in the national colours of red, green and black, and a rather impractical outfit of long-sleeved top and jogging bottoms.

But the wall of noise Kohistani experienced in the Olympic Stadium was in stark contrast to the whistling and heckling she received on a daily basis from dozens of men while training at the stadium in Kabul.

They would shout “Just be in your house” and “Be behind your man!” as she raced up and down the track, honing her technique.

Her coach would often have to quite literally fight his way through the crowds afterwards.
After the race, she said: “I faced a lot of challenges in my training for the London Olympics.

“One day I was coming to the stadium and the taxi driver asked me where I was going. I said `I am training, I am going to London Olympics’ and he said `get out of the cab, I don’t want to take you there’.

Although her time was nearly four seconds slower than Florence Griffith-Joyner’s world record of 10.49sec, Kohistani had some powerful words to her fellow countrywomen.

“I have a message for the women of Afghanistan. Come and join Tahmina because I need your support,” she said.

“We must be ready for the next Olympics, we should have more athletes in the next Olympics. I’m going to do my best to be in Brazil, I am going to give reason for other athletes to follow my way.”

It wasn’t so good for Al-Malki, Qatar’s first female Olympian, whose hours and hours of training and preparation resulted in just a couple of seconds in the Olympic spotlight.

Wearing a maroon headscarf, long sleeves and leggings, she stood out among the starters. She was slow out of the blocks, appeared to be very tight, and finally clutched at her right leg before stopping after about 15m.

It was a similar story for the others, who weren’t close to qualifying for the next round.
But as IOC spokesman Mark Adams said: “If someone’s injured then they are injured. She is here and she is competing. That is what matters.

“I think we should be celebrating today because we had two athletes from two of three countries who had never sent women athletes to the Games.”