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Women who shaped Rio 2016

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No doubt that the Olympic Games are the most glamorous multi-sports events known to man. The Games present athletes with platforms to make statements at games venues: statements that sometimes resonate around the world, providing inspirations to aspiring athletes, and sometimes, non-athletes.

At Rio 2016, such moments are a dime a dozen, especially in women events. Women battled the plagues of Islamophobia to win medals, regardless of whether they came from supposed progressive clime like America or conservative country like Iran; they rose above social prejudices that look down on their gender to put the same society that limited them on the world map.

Guardian Woman has selected a few of these women whose stories we find inspiring.

Ibtihaj Muhammad . PHOTO: AFP

Ibtihaj Muhammad . PHOTO: AFP

Ibtihaj Muhammad  – ruptures bigotry
Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad is aiming drove her sabre through bigotry when she became the first American athlete to compete at the Olympics wearing a hijab.

The articulate 30-year-old African-American Muslim was catapulted to prominence in January 2016 after clinching her place on the US Olympic team at the World Cup in Greece.

Muhammad’s participation in Rio comes in the midst of a US presidential election campaign marked by anti-Islamic rhetoric while incidents of threats and vandalism at mosques reached an all-time high last year.

The ugly atmosphere is all-too familiar for Muhammad, who has faced discrimination since childhood, when her skin color and hijab would often draw stares or abuse.

Indeed, part of the attraction of fencing was the fact that Muhammad could blend in more or less seamlessly.
“I played different sports growing up and my mum and I just happened to be driving past a high school and saw fencing from the car window,” she recalled.

“She saw that the athletes had on long tops and long pants and she didn’t know what the sport was but she wanted me to try it because she thought it would be accommodating for my religious beliefs.”

Muhammad was unconvinced at first but persisted when she realized the sport could be a passport to a college education.
“I saw that the top 10 schools in the country all had fencing programs so I saw fencing as a way for me to get to school so that’s why I stuck at it initially,” said Muhammad, who graduated from prestigious Duke University in 2007 with a degree in International Relations and African Studies.

Muhammad hopes that her Olympic journey may play a small role in shifting the kinds of attitudes that have surfaced during the US election campaign.

“It’s a tough political environment that we’re in right now, it’s not easy,” Muhammad said.

“Muslims are under the microscope and I’m hoping to change the image that people may have of Muslim women.
“I know that Muslim women are very, very diverse, especially here in the United States. We come in all different shapes, colors and sizes and we come from different backgrounds and are productive members of society. I want people to see that.”
Muhammad said she hoped she had done her bit to change attitudes about Muslim women.

“This has been a beautiful experience for me. I know that this was written for me, the chips fell where they did and I feel proud to represent Team USA even in defeat,” said the 30-year-old.

Muhammad’s tournament ended 15-12 to France’s Cecilia Berder in the table of 16, but it was a significant appearance for an athlete who says she has suffered discrimination since childhood.

Muhammad’s participation in Rio comes in the midst of a US presidential election campaign marked by anti-Islamic rhetoric while incidents of threats and vandalism at mosques reached an all-time high last year.

“It’s hard to explain,” she said, when asked how it felt to walk out as the first American athlete to wear the traditional Muslim headgear, or hijab.

“There’s so many emotions running though your body in that moment and you’re trying to focus solely on you’re opponent and try to remember your actions and your plan.”

She said she aimed to explode stereotypes about Muslim women and blaze a trail for other Muslim girls to get involved in sport.

“A lot of people believe that Muslim women don’t have voices or that we (don’t) participate in sport. And it’s not just to challenge the misconceptions outside the Muslim community, but also within the Muslim community,” she said.

“I want to break cultural norms and show girls that it’s important to be active, it’s important to be involved in sport.”

Iran's Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin poses with her bronze medal on the podium after the women’s taekwondo event in the -57kg category as part of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, on August 18, 2016, at the Carioca Arena 3, in Rio de Janeiro. Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP

Iran’s Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin poses with her bronze medal on the podium after the women’s taekwondo event in the -57kg category as part of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, on August 18, 2016, at the Carioca Arena 3, in Rio de Janeiro.<br />Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP

Kimia Alizadeh – opens path for Iranian girls
Kimia Alizadeh won the first ever Olympic medal by an Iranian woman after claiming taekwondo bronze in Rio.

The 18-year-old, who fights wearing a head- covering under her protective head-guard, on Thursday beat Nikita Glasnovic of Sweden 5-1 in the under-57kg division.
“I am so happy for Iranian girls because it is the first medal and I hope at the next Olympics we will get a gold,” said Alizadeh.

“I am very excited and I want to thank my parents and my coach. They really stand behind me and I am so happy.”

Great things have been expected of Alizadeh, who won the Youth Olympics two years ago and last year took bronze at the world championships, beating 2012 Olympic champion Jade Jones of Britain along the way.

Deeply conservative Iran has had few women competitors at the Olympics, particularly since the Islamic revolution in 1979.
Archer Lida Fariman was the first to be allowed to compete at the 1992 Games in Barcelona. But clothing obligations imposed by hardline religious leaders continue to place barriers to women competing freely, and on a level pegging, in many sports.

Women are also banned from watching sports in Iran where men are present.

Earlier in these Games, an Iranian woman was asked to leave the volleyball arena in Rio after she held up a banner protesting against her country’s laws.

Darya Safai held a sign saying: “Let Iranian women enter their stadiums.”

Ms Safai, who was born in Iran but lives in Belgium, was allowed to stay after refusing to leave the Iran-Egypt men’s match.

Iranian men have long been successful in taekwondo, with Hadi Saei winning back-to-back Olympic titles in 2004 and 2008.

US gymnast Simone Biles reacts after competing in the women's balance beam event final of the Artistic Gymnastics at the Olympic Arena during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 15, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / Toshifumi KITAMURA

US gymnast Simone Biles reacts after competing in the women’s balance beam event final of the Artistic Gymnastics at the Olympic Arena during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 15, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / Toshifumi KITAMURA

Simone Biles – big achievements in small body
American Simone Biles won a record-equalling four women’s gold in gymnastics an also took another bronze medal at the Games.

Simone Biles came to Rio riding high with a record ten world titles and favourite to become the first woman to bag five Olympic gold medals.

“It’s been a long journey, but I’ve enjoyed every moment,” said the Texan whose early life struggles had not set her out as the future face of women’s gymnastics.

The 1.45m (4ft 9ins) gymnast who moved to Texas from her native Ohio at the age of three, adopted with her little sister Adria by her maternal grandfather Ron Biles and his wife Nellie.

The children had been in foster care as their mother struggled with alcohol and drug addiction.
For Biles it all seems normal.

She calls her grandparents ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ and says that when she was small she thought all children were adopted.
She started gymnastic lessons after a daycare field trip to a Houston gym aged six. Her raw talent and ability to do amazing flips soon caught the attention of Boorman.

“When I first saw her, I was like, ‘Wow, this kid has something’. But what it was and how far she could go with it, I had no idea,” Boorman said.

Biles’ talent developed from a bungling novice who could not stay on the beam and struggled with uneven bars because her hands were so small.

Under Boorman, 43, Biles has won more world championships than any other woman in history, taking two gold at her first worlds in 2013.

Four more gold at worlds in Nanning 2014 made her realise it was no fluke.

“When I was young like every kid I always said I wanted to go to the Olympics but I wasn’t really serious about it,” recalls Biles.

“Everything just hit me. I thought maybe I’m good! It’s unreal how it happened,” she said.
She is the first woman to win three straight world all-around titles and first to win ten gold medals at world championships.

Everything has been geared towards her drive to become the greatest gymnast ever. Bilesspent all her secondary education being homeschooled.

“I wanted to see how far I could go in this sport. I don’t have any regrets, because of how far I’ve come.”
The task now will be getting back to normal with college on the horizon.

“We’ll make it as normal as possible. It will be crazy. I don’t think anybody is ready for it but Aly and Gabby (Douglas).”

Boorman added: “One thing is sure, she definitely won’t be back in the gym next week, except to sign autographs.”

Jamaica's Elaine Thompson celebrates after she won the Women's 100m Final during the athletics event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 13, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / OLIVIER MORIN

Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson celebrates after she won the Women’s 100m Final during the athletics event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 13, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / OLIVIER MORIN

Elaine Thompson – a warrior that broke the record
Elaine Thompson described herself as a “warrior” as she overcame a hamstring injury to seal the first women’s Olympic sprint double in 28 years at Rio 2016.

Fresh from bagging 100m gold, Thompsontimed a season’s best of 21.78 seconds to trump Dutch favourite Dafne Schippers, who won silver in 21.88sec at the Olympic Stadium on Wednesday.

The Jamaican follows in the footsteps of Veronica Campbell-Brown, 200m winner at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, and also Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who claimed 100m gold in Beijing and the London Games four years ago.

“I spent my childhood growing up watching Veronica and then Shelley-Ann,” Thompsonsaid.
But the Jamaican said she had not harboured such golden hopes coming in to the Rio Games.

“My expectation coming into these Olympics was that I just wanted to run as smooth as possible,” she said with some understatement.
“I had a hamstring injury at the national trials. But I didn’t let that overcome me. I treated it the best I could, but it wasn’t that bad.

“I had some rough days training but… I’m a warrior, I’m strong inside and I trained hard.
“It’s amazing. It all paid off.”

It certainly did, as Thompson went on to win a first Olympic sprint double since American world record holder Florence Griffith Joyner’s at the Seoul Games in 1988.

“I’ve seen videos and photos of her,” acknowledged the Stephen Francis-coached Jamaican, who just two seasons ago was running 23.23sec for the 200m.

Turning to the actual race, Thompson said that given Schippers’ renowned fast final 50 metres, it had been essential to remain focused.

“I know Dafne is a strong finisher, but I’m a strong finisher as well,” she said.
“I just went out there, kept my composure and executed straight away.”

India's bronze medallist Sakshi Malik stands on the podium at the end of the women's 58kg freestyle wrestling event at the Carioca Arena 2 in Rio de Janeiro on August 17, 2016, during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Jack GUEZ / AFP

India’s bronze medallist Sakshi Malik stands on the podium at the end of the women’s 58kg freestyle wrestling event at the Carioca Arena 2 in Rio de Janeiro on August 17, 2016, during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. PHOTO: Jack GUEZ / AFP

Sakshi Malik – wrestles prejudices to ground
Sakshi Malik snared India’s first medal of the Rio Olympics when she claimed bronze in the women’s freestyle wrestling 58kg category.

Malik defeated Aisuluu Tynybekova of Kyrgyzstan 3-1 in one of two bronze medal matches.
“It’s my dream of 12 years come true, I’m so happy,” Malik said. “It’s a very pressurised match because it’s a medal match — very, very pressurised. “I was very confident I would win.”

She was born in India’s Haryana state, where women were for some time not allowed to take part in wrestling events.
The 23-year-old started training young, having gained support from her parents to pursue the sport. Media reports say locals initially berated her parents, telling them that their daughter would become undesirable to potential suitors.

Locals used to berate Sakshi’s parents when she was growing up, warning that their daughter would develop puffed-out cauliflower ears, common among wrestlers, and become undesirable to potential husbands.

“It hurt a little and I wondered why people said such mean things, especially when I was so young, and made me doubt myself,” said the 23-year-old, who began training when she was 12.

USA's Katie Ledecky poses with her gold medal on the podium of the Women's 800m Freestyle Final during the swimming event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 12, 2016. GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP

USA’s Katie Ledecky poses with her gold medal on the podium of the Women’s 800m Freestyle Final during the swimming event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 12, 2016.<br />GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP

Katie Ledecky – takes up the baton
Four years on from her breakout 800m free victory in London, Katie Ledecky swept the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles — shattering her own world records in the 400m and 800m to stamp herself as an Olympic great.

Ledecky’s blazing 8:04.79 in the 800m free left silver medallist Jazz Carlin of Britain 11.38sec back — the second-biggest margin of victory ever. But the 19-year-old from Washington DC, heading to university next month, showed she can pull off a tight race too as she held off Sarah Sjostrom in the 200m free. She was the first to complete the treble since Debbie Meyer in 1968, the year the 800m was added to the Games programme.

“She is a phenom,” said 12-time Olympic medallist Ryan Lochte, who predicted that Ledecky would one day beat his times in distance events. “Any time she gets in that water she is going to do something amazing. She is just so young and she just has so much determination and she is so gifted.”

Simone Manuel of USA gets ready for the Women's 50m Freestyle heats during the swimming event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 12, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / CHRISTOPHE SIMON

Simone Manuel of USA gets ready for the Women’s 50m Freestyle heats during the swimming event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 12, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / CHRISTOPHE SIMON

Simone Manuel – black girl goes golden
As the first African-American woman to win gold in an individual Olympic swimming event,Simone Manuel knew the colour of her skin would generate more interest than the colour of the medal she had just won.

Proud of her achievement, she said she hoped her historic win in the women’s 100 metres freestyle at the Rio Olympics on Thursday would pave the way for other African-American swimmers to succeed.

But the 20-year-old, whose win was all the more remarkable because she was involved in a rare dead-heat for gold, also hoped the day would come when questions about her race would refer to what happened in the pool rather than her ethnicity.

“I’m super glad with the fact that I can be an inspiration to others and hopefully diversify the sport. But at the same time I would like there to be a day where there are more of us and it’s notSimone ‘the black swimmer,’” she told a news conference after her victory.

“Because the title ‘black swimmer’ makes it seem like I’m not supposed to be able to win a gold medal, I’m not supposed to break records, and that’s not true because I work just as hard as anyone else and I love the sport and I want to win just like everybody else.”

Only a handful of black swimmers have represented the United States at the Olympics and few of them have won medals.

The first was Anthony Ervin at Sydney in 2000.

Four years later at Athens, Maritza Correia became the first female medal winner, collecting a relay silver. Cullen Jones and Lia Neal have also won medals and Manuel, who became the first American woman in 32 years to win gold in the 100m freestyle when she tied with Canadian teenager Penny Oleksiak, said she hopes there would be plenty more African-Americans to follow.

“This medal is not just for me, it’s for some of the African-Americans who came before me and have been an inspiration to me,” she said.

“I hope that I can be an inspiration for others, so this medal is for the people who come behind me.”
“I think it means a lot, especially with what’s going on in the world today, a lot of the issues, especially police brutality. This win kind of brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on in the world.”

Rio 2016 Olympic Games women's -57kg judo gold medal winner Rafaela Silva is seen during a press conference about racism in Rio de Janeiro on August 10, 2016 / AFP PHOTO / VANDERLEI ALMEIDA

Rio 2016 Olympic Games women’s -57kg judo gold medal winner Rafaela Silva is seen during a press conference about racism in Rio de Janeiro on August 10, 2016 / AFP PHOTO / VANDERLEI ALMEIDA

Rafaela Silva – heroine defies racist taunts
Rafaela Silva, who was brought up in Rio’s notorious City of God favela, was called a “monkey” after being disqualified from the London Olympics in 2012.

Four years on, Brazil is hosting the Games and the 57kg category judoka is the heroine as the country’s first and only gold medal of the opening week of competition.

“People taunted me, they said I was a monkey and my place was in a cage. But I proved my place is in sport and in judo,” said the gritty 24-year-old who has spoken forcefully about racism in her country whilst she is in the Olympic headlines.
Her sporting skill also deserves attention. She beat world number one Sumiya Dorjsuren of Mongolia to take the title and prove that Brazil is a world force in women’s judo even if the country does not always treasure them.


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