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Irena Szewinska and Nawal El Moutawakel elected to the IOC

Irena Szewinska and Nawal El Moutawakel elected to the IOC
profiles of two great athletes by Giorgio Reineri
Irena Kirszenstein-Szewinska (POL) and Nawal El Moutawakel-Bennis (MAR), have been elected in Nagano as members of the IOC. This prestigious appointment is another important step in the long sporting history of these two women: exceptional athletes, their names have marked the evolution of our sport.

In their early days, both have had to combat prejudice.

When, at the beginning of the Sixties, Irena Kirszenstein - she had not yet married Janusz Szewinsk - started to dominate on both the track and the winner’s podium, the concept of the woman athlete was still accepted only with difficulty. On the other hand, women were excluded from the Olympic Games until 1928 and the majority of events, held to be dangerous for the fragile female physique - such as the 200m, 400m and 800m (taken out of the programme after the Amsterdam Games), without even mentioning the longer distances and the long jump - were only brought back many years later. In a world dominated by antiquated social stereotypes, Irena’s explosion onto the sporting stage created a sensation: for she brought the talent of a great athlete and the graceful femininity of a young woman.

A beautiful young woman, who was prepared to face the rigours of sport and motherhood: in between her Olympic medals of 1964 and 1968 (gold in the 4x100m, silver in the 200 and the long jump; bronze in the 100m again and gold, and a world record, in the 200m) and her stunning performance in 1976 in the 400m (49.28 and a new world record), she nonetheless did not forgo the joy of bearing two children.

Of course, her election to the IOC - where she has finally joined Pirjo Haggmann, the first woman admitted to the corridors of Olympic power and who has to her credit a 4th place in the final of the 400m in Montreal - does not depend solely from this legendary athletics career, but from all of her work as a sports administrator. She has acted as president of the Polish athletics federation, member of the IAAF women’s committee and a member of the EAA and has always maintained the ultimate, deepest principle of sport: that of fighting against prejudice - and she had experienced this in its most extreme form as an adolescent, for she was born in Leningrad in a Jewish refugee camp - and for understanding among all peoples.

The same considerations stand for Nawal El Moutawakel-Bennis. Her name is already emblazoned in the annals of sport as the first woman from the African continent, and the first Muslim woman to win an Olympic gold medal. Now, to this title, must be added the distinction of being the first woman from the African continent, a Muslim, to represent the female universe of that continent in the IOC.

Nawal El Moutawakel was the surprise winner of the final of the 400m hurdles in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. And it was a magnificent victory: from the first stride she headed the field and finished bettering her personal best by 76 hundredths. It was the first time the event figured in the programme of the Olympics and Nawal did not let the opportunity slip through her fingers, winning the first ever women's Olympic medal for Morocco.

A highly educated woman - she studied at university in the United States - Nawal El Moutawakel, who is the mother of two children, was also, together with Canadian Abby Hoffman, the first woman to be elected to the Council of the IAAF (which now counts five IOC members in its ranks: Primo Nebiolo, Arne Ljungqvist, Nawal El Moutawakel, Mohamad Hasan and Charles Mukora). The recognition of her continuing commitment in favour of youth sports and the evolution of the woman’s role in the Islamic world, and especially in Morocco, is also embodied in her appointment last autumn as Secretary of State for Youth and Sport.