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From fighting boys to Saudi Olympic history for female taekwondo star

By AFP

June 20, 2024 10:33 AM


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Saudi taekwondo standout Donia Abu Taleb had an unusual introduction to the sport: for years she trained at a boys' club because there were no girls to compete with.

Now the 27-year-old has become the first Saudi woman to qualify for the Olympics and is dreaming of bringing home the Gulf kingdom's first gold medal when she competes in Paris.

Though her smiling face today appears on posters and billboards, underscoring Saudi officials' recent push to champion women's athletics, the Jeddah native had much humbler beginnings.

"I started taekwondo when I was eight years old and there was no support like now," Abu Taleb, who also has a law degree, told AFP after a recent training session in the southern mountain city of Abha.

"I always played with the boys in the boys' centre, originally without girls. I used to wear a head-covering on my hair so as not to show that I was a girl."

Facing off against boys, she added, "distinguished me and made me strong... I love the challenge".

- High hopes for Paris -

For many decades, Saudi Arabia's restrictions on women's rights extended to their participation in sports, even as spectators.

While privileged Saudi women could compete in tennis and even football in private compounds, there was limited official backing for women in other sports.

In 2012 in London, judo athlete Wojdan Shaherkani became the first Saudi woman to compete at the Olympics thanks to a special invitation from the International Olympic Committee.

Her historic debut lasted just 82 seconds, as she was beaten in the first round.

US-born Sarah Attar, another invitee, finished a distant last in her 800m heat on the track.

Attar was one of four Saudi women to compete as wildcards at the 2016 Olympics, and they were followed by two more at Tokyo 2020.

But Abu Taleb is the first to qualify by right.

Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi's de facto ruler who became heir to the throne in 2017, Riyadh has tried to revamp its forbidding image in part by expanding rights for women, allowing them to drive and encouraging them to work.

Authorities have also lifted a ban on women attending football stadiums and invested in developing a women's national football team.

Abu Taleb has taken advantage of the newfound state backing, bagging gold at the 2020 Arab Taekwondo Championship and bronze medals at the Asian and world championships in 2022.

Earlier this year she upgraded to gold at the Asian Taekwondo Championships.

She has high hopes for Paris, she told AFP at the Abha training centre, standing near a large banner bearing her picture.

"From the beginning, I dreamed of being a world champion, participating in the Olympics, and winning gold," she said.

To date, Saudi Arabia has won two bronze and two silver medals at the Olympics, all for men.

- 'Kill or be killed' -

Abu Taleb's success at the Olympics would give added momentum to Saudi Arabia's campaign to rebrand itself as a sports hub.

The kingdom will host the 2027 Asian Cup football tournament, the 2029 Asian Winter Games and the 2034 Asian Games, and regularly holds Formula One races and heavyweight boxing title fights.

Last year it also emerged as the sole bidder to host the 2034 football World Cup, and lavished more than a billion dollars on luring top footballers to the Saudi Pro League.

Saudi Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal told AFP in 2022 that hosting an Olympics was the government's "ultimate goal".

Though she competes in a relatively low-profile event, Abu Taleb has gained officials' attention.

Saudi Arabia hired Russian coach Kurban Bogdaev, who guided Tunisian Mohamed Jendoubi to silver at the Tokyo Olympics, to coach the Saudi taekwondo team.

"The first time I saw Donia, her level was low, but I saw her eager to grow and achieve," Bogdaev said, adding that he did not necessarily view her as an Olympic prospect at first.

But she "trains hard, always believes in herself, and is confident in what she can do", he added.

At the recent training session in Abha organised by the Saudi Taekwondo Federation, Abu Taleb, wearing a blue helmet and using a kick pad, nimbly avoided blows from athletes from Russia and Uzbekistan.

"Preparing an Olympic champion takes many years and is a state project," Shaddad Al-Omari, the federation's president, told AFP.

Abu Taleb has quickly blossomed from "an unranked athlete to a player near the top of the rankings".

As the Olympics approach, Abu Taleb is fully aware of the pressure she'll be under but insists she can handle it.

"As the first Saudi woman to qualify for the Olympics, I have reached the stage of kill or be killed," she said.

"I have reached a place where I must achieve something."


AFP


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