DOHA, Qatar — Three weeks before the Arab Games in Doha, Qatari sports officials called Nada Mohammed Wafa to tell her she would be competing in the Middle East’s biggest sporting event.
Surprised – and a bit scared – the 17-year-old swimmer replied: “Oh wow! Sure!”
Wafa, who had only competed in school-level events until then, trained hard to make up for the short time she had before making history by becoming the first woman on Qatar’s national swim team.
“It’s a good feeling, but it’s also very lonely,” Wafa said. “It’s just me, myself and I.”
Wafa might be Qatar’s lone female swimmer, but she is part of a group of emerging athletes in the conservative Muslim country that hopes to send women to the Olympics for the first time in London next year.
Along with Saudi Arabia and Brunei, Qatar has never sent female athletes to the Olympics. Last year, the International Olympic Committee urged the three countries to end the practice of sending all-male teams to the games, hoping that naming and shaming would do more for female athletes than banning their nations from the Olympics.
While Saudi Arabia’s plans to send women to the London Games remain wrapped in secrecy, Qatar is feverishly working to escape the stigma that comes with failing to include women.
Over the past decade, the tiny but rich Gulf country has been targeting sports as a vehicle to showcase its global aspirations. Last year, it became the first Arab country to win the right to play host to the World Cup in 2022. And Qatar’s bid for the 2020 Olympics adds the pressure to include women on the teams in London.
Qatar Olympic Committee President Sheik Saoud bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said female athletes have been competing in international tournaments for the past three years, including last year’s Youth Olympics in Singapore.
The only reason women were not included for the 2008 Beijing Games is because they didn’t qualify in any sport, Sheik Saoud said.