BUENOS AIRES: Tunisia, one of only three Arab countries to take a larger delegation of females than males to the ongoing Youth Olympic Games, leads the region’s medal table at the midway stage of the two-week mega-event. And as silver-medallist Mariem Khlifi says, part of her country’s success stems from fighting for gender equality since infancy.
Khlifi, one of 25 Tunisian females competing in Buenos Aires this month, took silver in judo on Monday after narrowly losing to Hungary’s Szofi Ozbas in the under-63kg gold medal match. After receiving her medal, she explained her talent on the mat was cultivated during a childhood in which she constantly battled to be treated equally.
“With Tunisian children, the girls are not girly,” said Khlifi, a 17-year-old from Kairouan in northern Tunisia. “They love to fight with boys, play with boys, to be equal. We think that if we do things like the boys, we can be like the boys, so play-fights are common. It’s something we do when we’re little — go to each other’s houses or to the streets, play with the other kids, and finish with a fight. Not punching, but always wrestling.”
Three days later Khlifi was joined on the medal table by compatriot Ghofrane Belkhir, who went won step further and secured her country’s first gold of the Games. The weightlifter triumphed in the women’s 58kg category after a gripping finale in which she out-lifted Egypt’s Neama Said by just 2kg to take gold. Said’s silver was Egypt’s fifth medal in Buenos Aires and while she is her country’s only female medallist so far, she is also the only Egyptian athlete to finish with something other than bronze.
Morocco are the only other Arab delegation to stand on the top two steps of the podium — and again it has been by way of their six female athletes. Taekwondo practitioner Safia Salih claimed silver in the -55kg after slipping to Thailand’s Kanthida Saengsin in the final, but Fatima-Essahra Aboufaras, 16, defeated Iran’s Kimia Hemati in the -63kg category to take gold. “I’m very happy because Morocco needed this medal,” said Aboufaras. “I’ve been training for a long time to win this gold.”
Much like at the Olympics proper, Taekwondo is proving fertile ground for Arab nations. Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Djibouti and Libya also all sent athletes to Argentina to compete in the Korean combat sport. Jordan — the only other Arab country on the medal board after seven days — won their medal when Zaid Abdul Kareem reached the semi-finals in the men’s -68kg category. He said he was inspired by watching Ahmad Abughaush’s victory at Rio 2016.
“I wasn’t really doing it competitively before then,” said the 17-year-old. “It was just a hobby for me; something that was quite fun. But after Abughaush won in Rio, suddenly I wanted to compete and represent my nation. So I began entering sports centres in the capital, training harder. Because of this, I now actually get to train with Abughaush himself. He mentors me, gives me advice and tips on how to improve.”
Abughaush’s triumph in Brazil two years ago has resulted in an explosion of interest in the sport in his home country. Jordanian taekwondo practitioners are treated like celebrities, says Kareem, who is expected to see his profile elevated considerably on return to the Hashemite Kingdom.
“Taekwondo has honestly been taken to a completely new level in the country since Rio,” Kareem said. “It’s inspired everyone. It was an important sport for us before then, but it gets so much coverage now. Even when fighters are just preparing for a competition or going to regular training, they’re always on TV and getting interviewed. In Jordan now, everyone knows about taekwondo.”