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African Trail Blazers in the Past Summer Olympics

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(The following post is by Abdulahi A. Ahmed, Technician in the Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

The most watched sport this August will have to be the long-awaited Rio 2016 Summer Olympics! Like all the previous Olympic games, this major sporting event will once again bring together in one place world-class athletes from over 200 countries to compete against each other in some 300 different sports.

Since the modern Olympics began in the late 19th century, the world has witnessed the prowesses of numerous athletes from all five continents. The continent of Africa, for instance, has produced quite a number of athletes who have made their marks not only in their homeland, but have gone on to amaze the world with their outstanding achievements. The list of great African Olympians is just too long to write about in this short blog, so I have chosen three trail blazers from the continent of Africa who were the first to win medals in an Olympic event for their respective countries.

Olympians from the African Continent
A sampling of collection items about the three Olympic trail blazers from the African continent: El Sayed Mohammed Nosseir, Abebe Bikila and Nawal El Moutawakel. African and Middle Eastern Division.

El Sayed Mohammed Nosseir (1905–1977) was an Egyptian weightlifter. He won a gold medal in the light-heavyweight class (75-82.5 kg or 165-182 lbs) at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam. By lifting 355.0 kg (782.6 lbs), he not only created a new world record but also won Egypt’s first ever Olympic gold medal. But Nosseir’s contribution to sports went beyond that. Departing from the prevalent squatting style, he invented a new technique, known as the “Camel Method.” Camels are highly regarded in the Middle East and Africa for their unparalleled strength and endurance in the desert. Nosseir’s method was inspired by the way camels rise from a kneeling position while carrying heavy loads of goods.

With years of weightlifting experience, Nosseir also came to believe that a successful weightlifer requires full-body muscle training. After retiring from competitions, Nosseir went on to coach Egypt’s national team, putting his methods and experiences to good use and with that Egypt was able to gain several more Olympic medals in weightlifting.

Many new stars were born at the Olympic Games. But probably the most unassuming one emerged at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy. Abebe Bikila (1932–1973) of Ethiopia became not only the first Sub-Sahara African to win a gold medal, but also the first person to run an entire marathon race bare-foot because the shoes that Adidas sponsored didn’t fit him. It was also reported that Bikila was added to the Ethiopian Olympic team not long before the team was about to leave for Rome, as a last-minute replacement for another runner who suddenly fell ill and had to stay behind.

Bikila repeated his victory in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and won another gold medal for his country, only this time wearing Puma instead. With his twin gold medals in two consecutive Olympic Games, Bikila was the first athlete from sub-Saharan Africa to win Olympic gold medals. That bare-foot race of his was certainly matched by no one else. Bikila’s achievements marked the beginning of an era of great African distance runners that continues to this day. A stadium in Addis Ababa is named after him.

But to this list of famous Olympic athletes from the African continent we must add Nawal El Moutawakel who was born on April 15, 1962 in Morocco. Representing her country, El Moutawakel won the women’s 400 meters hurdles event at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, CA, thereby becoming the first Muslim woman from Africa to hold an Olympic gold medal. Her victory carried a special meaning because it came at a time when Muslim women’s participation in sports was rarely seen. In celebration of her historic win, King Hassan II of Morocco declared that all girls born on the day of her victory were to be named in her honor.

From a young girl running barefoot in the streets of Casablanca to becoming an Olympic gold medalist, El Moutawakel achieved what most considered impossible: she shattered long-held beliefs that women of her background could not thrive in sports. In 2007, El Moutawakel was appointed the Minister of Youth and Sports in Morocco and she continues to serve as an inspiration for many young women who aspire to succeed in life.

To learn more about these athletes, here are some resources available in the Library’s collections:

Barefoot runner: the life of marathon champion Abebe Bikila” by Paul Rambali, 2006.
Documentary film: “Tokyo Orinpikku” (Tokyo Olympiad), directed by Kon Ichikawa, Organizing Committee for the Games of the XVIII Olympiad – Toho(?), Japan, 1965. Abebe Bikila was featured in this film together with a number of other historic athletes from Australia, the Netherlands and the U.S. (170 min, Eastmancolor, CinemaScope, 35mm)
Kull shay’ wa-al-dunyā,” Cairo: Dār al-Hilāl, issue 184, May 19,1929.
al-Marʾah,” published by Ittiḥḥād al-ʻĀmli-Nisāʾ al-ʻIrāq, issue 186, 1984.
Ruwād al-riyāḍah fī Miṣr” by al-Sayyid Faraj, 1988.

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