Olympic champion Nawal El Moutawakel is a woman of many firsts. (ATR)
(ATR) Nawal El Moutawakel tells Around the Rings
"the future of sports will be feminine" despite the lack of gender equity now present in IOC leadership and across all levels of sports administration.
As the first woman from an Islamic nation to win Olympic gold in athletics and the only woman now sitting on the IOC Executive Board, El Moutawakel is also the Olympic Movement's de facto expert on Rio de Janeiro. She led the Evaluation Commission for 2016 that ended with Rio’s selection and now heads the Coordination Commission overseeing the next five years of Olympic works.
The IOC member from Morocco spoke to ATR
about the role of women in sport, the status of North African NOCs, the preparations of Rio 2016 and whether Africa is ready to host an Olympic Games.
Around the Rings:
There’s still a need to get more women involved with the IOC in business and in leadership as well as with federations and NOCs. What is your idea for how to make that happen?
Nawal El Moutawakel:
Well, this is why the IOC is working really hard to see how we can have more women involved in leadership.
We’re going in a good direction regarding women competing, but when it comes to administration, we’re lagging behind a bit.
It’s all linked, because if you have fewer women in your national governing bodies, it’s very difficult to get them at the international level.
It’s almost, though, like the outside world too. In the business world, in other aspects of life.
We cannot ignore the role of women. Woman is more than half of our planet. She is the mother, she is the sister, she is the wife, and her advice and her ideas and her wisdom are needed because when you have a woman winning the gold, we applaud, and what about her being involved in decision-making? I think it’s only wise and important to have her be in the business, in the world of the sports.
Is it a practical goal to say 50 percent, or something approximate, to women’s representation in society or in sport? If there are half women in Olympic Games competing, why not half elsewhere?
We want women to be present on the scene, whether it’s a quota system or whether it’s based on her capacity of being involved, but we need women out there.
At a certain time, I think the IOC had to take the decision to propose a quota, and lots of governments nowadays are doing the same thing, because if you wait for parties to include women, you can wait for years and decades and ages.
I think the quota system was a good step forward to at least encourage some women who finished their athletic careers to start their administrative careers, and the IOC with international federations and all the stakeholders have taken this lead in terms of training women to have a better understanding of where they’re going and a better understanding of what is expected from them as well as training in terms of administration, coaching, medical aspects, journalism and so on.
Dalma Rushdi Malhas became the first Saudi woman to medal in an Olympic event at last summer's inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. She won bronze in individual jumping. (Getty Images)
What about a situation like with athletes in Saudi Arabia where women do not compete on Olympic teams? How do you get over that kind of situation?
At the Singapore Youth Olympic Games for the first time ever in the history of the Olympic Movement in Saudi Arabia, a young girl was on the podium – a horseback rider. I was really happy to see that.
I was happy to see that because there is a door that’s been opened now for women in those parts of the world, the Gulf states. I was also happy to see Rakia Al Gassra from Bahrain running the 100m [at Athens 2004]. I was happy to see a list this long of all these women. During my time I wasn’t even dreaming to see them one day.
Today, there are making a revolution. Not only are they participating at the Games, but they are breaking records that only decades ago were run by men.
So I think there is a change in the world, and I think like FIFA had said a couple of years ago, that the future of the sport is feminine, that the future of FIFA is feminine, and I believe the future of sports will be feminine.
I recall when I was competing, I would look back and I was like “Where are all these women from Arab states, from African states? Where are they? Why am I one of the very very few? Why in my race I was one of the very few African athletes?”
When you look nowadays, you see athletes coming from Namibia, from Sierra Leone, from Zambia, from Zimbabwe, from Ivory Coast, from Gambia. When you see the list of [competition results], you have a variety, and this is about equal access to the Olympics, which is based on universality.
Talk about North Africa and the Middle East if you can, about the pressures for change that people are raising in the past few months to change the old way of doing things. What does this mean for the Olympic Movement and for the organization across these countries? Will it have an impact on sport?
What’s happening today I think is something maybe that’s needed for a change.
It will not affect how athletes are preparing for the Olympic Games. The coaches are having training sessions, and programs put in place by IFs are still in place.
And do you think that’s a testament to the autonomy that NOCs are supposed to enjoy from political interference – the ideal that sport is separate and apart from politics?
This is something that is very dear to the Olympic Movement based on friendship, solidarity and excellence.
ATR: No politics?
In certain countries, it’s well understood. In others, it’s not well understood, and this is why the IOC is there to pull the alarm signal. The government’s role is to support financially some national federations, to support them also in terms of preparing their national teams and to support them also in training their officials in administrative duties and in all aspects to accompany the athletes.
This needs to be well understood, and unfortunately there are some cases where there is a conflict between some ministers and their national Olympic committees or ministers and national federations, but the IOC is there to try to clarify situations through the Olympic Solidarity.
Some thoughts about how it’s going in Brazil with Rio de Janeiro?
El Moutawakel alongside Rio 2016 chairman Carlos Nuzman and IOC president Jacques Rogge during a December visit of the IOC Coordination Commission to the host city. (ATR)
You attended Rio with us at the end of the year, and you have seen the launch of the logo and the works that have been launched regarding the tunnel.
We had a very positive meeting [at SportAccord] with Gilbert Felli and Carlos Nuzman and [Rio 2016 director general] Leo Gryner regarding our next project review due to be organized April 27-28 preparing our second Coordination Commission next June.
So at the moment, things are running business as usual. One good and positive piece of news is the recent appointment of [Henrique] Meirelles as the head of APO, the organization that is going to supervise [the Brazilian government’s role in Olympic preparations].
And also the change of the government.
To a woman.
To a woman.
Have you met Dilma Rousseff?
The first time, she was backing the bid very very strongly, and I met her again during the inauguration.
I was very surprised that she remembered who I was, and she spoke to me. I unfortunately don’t speak Portuguese, but she said she remembered everything she said to me during the bid process when we were doing the [IOC Evaluation Commission visit]. She said “All the promises I made are still there, and I will be behind the organization of the Games so that they can be the best ever.”
So that was a good statement.
Is it exciting to be involved with a project like this that means bringing the Olympics to a new place?
Yes, very much so.
It’s very challenging, but I think it’s going to be a very nice journey between now and 2016 with Brazil organizing this year the Military Games and in 2014 the World Cup for soccer – back-to-back big events.
I think when you consider Brazil being one of the largest growing countries, economically speaking, I think they deserve the Games.
What about the chances of Morocco for the Olympics?
El Moutawakel bangs a drum during a stealth visit to Rio's Pavão-Pavãozinho community last January. (Rio 2016)
You have stated the dream of some countries – hosting the Games. Why not?
I was behind South Africa back in 1997 when they were trying to bid with Capetown [for the 2004 Summer Olympics]. It was a project of a nation but the dream of a continent. This is how I imagine it. It was not a project of only South Africa because Africa never hosted the Olympic Games. But then that dream didn’t come true, but Africa organized the FIFA World Cup and a very successful one at that.
Morocco hosted the world championships in cross-country in 1998, hosted also the world championships for youth in 2005 and we hosted the African Cup of Nations in soccer.
Egypt also was bidding for the  Olympics as well as an IOC Session.
Kenya made a statement a couple of years ago that they have a dream or a wish or the will to organize, but all these countries need to bear in mind that there is a process put in place by the IOC, a very rigid one for countries wishing to organize the Games.
And the Olympic Games is not like the World Cup. The Olympic Games is about 28 sports. It’s about one city. It’s about many venues. It’s about 16 days of glory, like the film made by our dear friend [Olympic filmmaker Bud Greenspan] who passed away. It’s about the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games.
So whatever country is ready today to commit to the 17 themes that need to be solidly presented as well as to backing by governments and by the entire population [should bid]. I think Africa can be ready to organize the Games because when you see those five rings, the only one missing is Africa.
Interview conducted by Ed Hula.
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