TOKYO — The very first event on the Tokyo Olympic Stadium track on Friday morning was the preliminary round of the women’s 100m.
They were all women from countries with little to no athletics history, especially for women — places like Oman, Afghanistan, and Comoros, one of the countries many of us were looking up on Google during the Opening Ceremony last week.
The 10 fastest of these 27 runners moved on to Round 1 of the event on Friday afternoon, where they’d find themselves on the line with the likes of two-time Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the second fastest woman in history behind the legendary Florence Griffith-Joyner, reigning Olympic champ Elaine Thompson-Herah, and British star sprinter Dina Asher-Smith.
Are they medal contenders? Certainly not. The best of the bunch was Joella Lloyd, representing the Caribbean nations of Antigua and Barbuda. A rising sophomore at the University of Tennessee where she was one of the SEC’s Newcomers of the Year, she ran a smooth 11.55 seconds.
They didn’t have fancy racing spikes provided by major footwear companies that sponsor them. They likely didn’t receive a duffel bag full of national team swag, different racing suits and warmups for every weather condition. Several followed Muslim custom and wore hijab, long sleeves and long pants in the exceedingly humid Tokyo heat.
But for many of them, just getting here, having the opportunity to represent their country on the biggest stage athletics offers, was an incredible win.
There was Yasmeen Al Dabbagh of Saudi Arabia, a country that only allowed women to compete in 2012 after pressure from the IOC. Al Dabbagh, who holds an economics degree from Columbia University and was a member of the track team there, was last in her heat in 13.34 seconds, a time many American middle school girls run. But she is considered the fastest woman in her country, and the fact she gets to race is progress.
And Matie Stanley from the South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, which has roughly 12,000 residents, or less than the number of people attend your average Brooklyn Nets game. Stanley, who was one of her nation’s flag bearers here, ran a lifetime best of 14.52 seconds.
And Houleye Ba of Mauritania, a West African country where women are second-class citizens and human rights abuses run rampant. Over a third of women are married by age 18, and roughly 58 percent can’t read. Women in Mauritania are still subjected to female genital mutilation, a barbaric practice the United Nations has been trying to stop for years. This is Ba’s second Olympics: in 2016 she ran her 800m heat in 2:43.52. On Friday she ran a personal best of 15.26 seconds.
They may be considered slow by some, but it’s heartening to see them here at all. They represent what should be the true purpose of the Olympics, the one that’s gotten lost in the IOC’s corruption and excess: competing for love of sport, competing for your family, competing for your people.
Competing to show girls and women, left behind in so many corners of the world, what they’re capable of.
Because after today, those women, no matter what the clock showed, can say something neither you or I can: they are Olympians.
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