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An Olympic gold medalist stripped of her glory

Dana Sumlaji
December 31, 2021

Heptathlete Ghada Shouaa won Syria's only Olympic gold medal. She says the treatment she received after her 1996 triumph at the Atlanta Games didn't reflect her feat and this remains a deterrent for female Arab athletes.

Ghada Shouaa
Former heptathlete Ghada Shouaa wants more progress to be made in Arab nations to support aspiring female athletesImage: privat

The Tokyo Olympics and Paralyimpics handed out 2,741 medals combined, but not every medal won at them will necessarily dovetail with a fairy tale ending. 

While we now hail the merits of the people who made the podium in Tokyo, what happens next to those who trained tirelessly for years in the pursuit of Olympic glory?

Ghada Shouaa is a former Syrian heptathlete and gold medalist who talked with DW about her Olympic story and her desire for women athletes to receive more recognition in the Arab world.

From world No. 1 to injury-stricken

Shouaa's story began with a 25th-placed finish at her first Olympic Games, in Barcelona in 1992. Her crowning moment then came at Atlanta in 1996, when she won Syria's first and only Olympic gold medal to this day. Combined with her triumphs at the World Championships the year before, Shouaa was ranked as the No.1 heptathlete in the world for two consecutive years.

Ghada Shouaa winning gold at Atlanta in 1996
Ghada Shouaa (center) made history when she won gold at Atlanta in 1996Image: Lynne Sladky/AP/picture alliance

The joy didn't last long though, as injuries hindered her pursuit of further glory and resulted in her moving to Germany to receive specialist treatment for a severe back injury.

In 1999, a return to the World Championships stage saw her claim bronze in Seville, only for injuries to again blight her journey at the Summer Games in Sydney a year later. Shouaa's battle with injury wasn't the only adversity she faced, though.

"It all started in Sydney and afterward, when I couldn't go back to Syria, I had to continue my treatment in Germany," Shouaa told DW. "Sports authorities personnel started a smear campaign, accusing me of faking all my injuries to avoid serving my government or returning to my country!"

Pressure from the Syrian athletics' authorities

To her shock, the Syrian Olympic Committee, the General Sport Federation and the Syrian Athletic Federation then agreed to cut her funding.

"They stopped paying me, and my coach and I didn't have the financial capacity to participate at our own cost. Without my sponsor in Germany, I wouldn't have been able to live."

Ghada Shouaa at the 1999 Athletics World Championships
The final medal of Shouaa's career came at the 1999 World ChampionshipsImage: Gerry Penny/dpa/picture-alliance

Shouaa was forced to make a difficult call and decided against representing Syria in the future. Her decision prompted the Syrian authorities to lay siege to the world-renowned athlete's reputation. They sent her to court in 2004 and stripped her of all her financial rights.

Knowing she stood little chance, she paid bail to be able to stay out of jail and exit the country that had failed her with what dignity she had left. "I'm not a criminal. They should have been punished and put in jail because they are corrupt," said Shouaa, who competed for local German clubs before retiring in 2004. 

"I was mentally exhausted. The pressure from Syria was not easy to handle. I used to get threats by phone. My life was not easy."

A region of untapped sporting talent

The Arab world is full of young athletes who could be gold medalists if their sports received more funding or they had more role models like Ghada Shouaa. Arab countries were represented by 14 female athletes at the Olympics in Tokyo, and they left with four medals: one gold, one silver and two bronze. 

"The lack of Arab women in the Olympics was a tragedy, and the reason is because the new generation is watching what happened to us," said Shouaa. "They are scared to face the same ignorance, disrespect, humiliation and bullying.

Ghada Shouaa at the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996
Shouaa feels that the treatment she received will deter other female athletes from competingImage: AFP/dpa/picture-alliance

"The bullying of women has to stop, and those who intend to hurt us on purpose, especially on social media, should be punished. They say we are not women and that we won because we have men's genes. They want us to be in the kitchen and look like models. I'm an athlete, and I don't care how I look."

Shouaa believes that the medal winners in Tokyo are temporary exceptions who will disappear from memory like many have before. If Arab women continue to be marginalized and denied the same rights as men, she doesn't see any promising future for sports in the region.

"Nothing comes in one day or two; you need a plan that might take 12 to 14 years. The problem is that those in charge of sports in the Arab countries simply don't have patience. Some of the Gulf countries treat athletes like a contract that finishes when they get their medal, and I can't consider this a win," she said.

"In my country, they don't know how important it is for athletes to compete internationally and feel the spirit of sports. From my time as an athlete to now, I hear the same stories about the abuse and bullying of women. Nothing has changed, unfortunately."

A tough and treacherous road to tread

The aspiring Olympians who don't get any moral or material support have to find a way to earn a living and start from scratch like Shouaa did in Germany. Despite having several coaching certificates, Shouaa has decided to avoid anything related to sports.

She had previously worked as an Olympics analyst on Arabic TV channels, but they paid her significantly less than her male counterparts. As a result, she decided to reject an offer for the Tokyo Olympics.

Ghada Shouaa competing at Atlanta in 1996
Shouaa had hoped to break down barriers for female athletes in Arab nationsImage: R4032/Pressefoto Baumann/picture alliance

"This is discrimination, and I don't accept it. If you watch sports on Arab TV channels, you only see men commentating or analyzing. But I'm also an expert, I did something big in my career as an athlete and I could have given the Arab audience a good perspective about women's sports. But those in charge don't like strong personalities or hearing the truth," she said.

The war in Syria forced many athletes to flee their country hoping for a better life. With 90% of government ministries still in power and failing to keep their promises of a better future, Shouaa thinks the prospects for female athletes in Arab countries remain as challenging as ever despite her bid to break down barriers.

"I don't want them to honor me after I die, and that's usually the case there. History will take the right side at the end but we won't be here anymore."

This article was originally published on September 7, 2021

DW Korrespondentin - Dana Sumlaji
Dana Sumlaji x