By winning the 400 metres hurdles gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, Nawal El Moutawakel became the first Moroccan, African and Muslim woman to win an Olympic gold medal. Her watershed performance was watched live in her hometown of Casablanca in the early hours of the morning and locals poured onto the streets to celebrate. Her Olympic success earned her instant recognition in her country and the King of Morocco decreed that all girls born on the date of her victory were to be named in her honour.
Although a stunning accomplishment, it was not a surprise result. El Moutawakel was groomed at Iowa State University in the United States and had been running with considerable success on the hotly-competitive American collegiate scene over the previous two years.
Her Olympic achievement was the breakthrough that gave Moroccan women much-needed belief in themselves and the courage to take up sport, which had previously been regarded as the preserve of men. The generation, which grew up at the time of her Los Angeles success has since emerged impressively on the international scene. Nezha Bidouane was World Champion in 1997 in the 400 metres hurdles, while Zohra Ouaziz took the silver medal in the 1999 World Championships in the 5,000 metres.
Nawal El Moutawakel is still fiercely proud of her roots and regards the new opportunities that her Olympic victory gave to girls in Morocco as her most telling achievement in athletics. She still remains active in Moroccan athletics and in 1997 she was appointed Minister of Sport and Youth in Morocco.
Her influence internationally has also increased significantly in recent years. In 1995, she became a council member of the International Association of Athletics Federations and two years later she became the first Muslim woman ever to be elected to the International Olympic Committee. A member of the IOC Women and Sports Commission and the IOC Marketing Commission, in 2004 she was appointed Chairperson of the IOC Evaluation Commission for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. She is currently Vice-Chair of the Laureus World Sports Academy.