LONDON—When the Olympic judo competition starts on Friday, all eyes will be on one competitor—and she’s not a medal contender.
After days of haggling, officials announced earlier this week that one of Saudi Arabia’s first female Olympians—Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani—will compete wearing a modified headscarf.
No details were provided, but officials said the compromise respected cultural sensitivities and met the International Judo Federation’s requirements that the headscarf not make her vulnerable to the sport’s aggressive grabs and strangleholds.
Saudi Arabia agreed to send women to the London Games on the condition they adhere to the kingdom’s conservative Islamic traditions, including wearing a headscarf.
Shahrkhani’s bigger worry may be just getting through her first fight. Unlike every other judoka at the Olympics, Shahrkhani doesn’t have a black belt. She only has a blue belt after training for just two years.
While some ex-Olympians called her a novice and predicted she could be hurt, others said judo was full of surprises.
Shahrkhani’s division is dominated by China’s Wen Tong, who won the gold in Beijing and also holds five world championship titles.
In the men’s 100-kilogram plus division, Frenchman Teddy Riner is the favorite to win. Riner has won a record five world championships and at 22, has already been called a legend in the martial art. At 2.08 meters (6-ft-8) and weighing in at 140 kilograms (310 pounds), Riner is a true heavyweight. But he is renowned for his speed and agility.
Riner won a bronze at the Beijing Games and says that the Olympic gold is the only medal he is missing. While he has dominated his division in recent years, German Andreas Toelzer will be trying his best to stop him; Toelzer has been beaten by Riner at the last two world championships. Last week, Toelzer warned that he had beaten Riner once and thought it was possible to duplicate the feat.
As the final day of the judo competition, Friday will be Japan’s last chance for any more medals. On Thursday, the nation that invented judo was shut out of the medals entirely as both of its players were ousted in the preliminary rounds. So far, it has only managed one gold, a near disaster for the judo-crazed country.
On Thursday, Kayla Harrison became the first American to win an Olympic judo gold medal.
Harrison defeated Britain’s Gemma Gibbons in a final where she was almost always on the attack, getting a stronger grip on Gibbons and managing to throw her twice.
Her medal is the second for the US in judo this week; teammate Marti Malloy won a bronze in the women’s 57-kilogram division.
After enduring years of sexual abuse from a former judo coach, Harrison’s victory is also a personal triumph. She said that judo once caused her incredible anguish, but has also been the source of the most joy in her life.
Harrison, 22, is the world number four and a previous world champion. She was in top form on Thursday, dispatching many of her opponents with a match-ending ippon, one in less than a minute.
Harrison hugged Gibbons after winning and walked around the stadium afterwards draped in an American flag.
“I am at peace,” she said. “I’ve accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish.”
The bronze medals were won by Audrey Tcheumeo of France and Mayra Aguiar of Brazil.
In the men’s division, Tagir Khaibulaev of Russia won the men’s 100-kilogram Olympic judo gold medal as Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister David Cameron looked on.
Khaibulaev defeated defending Beijing champion Tuvshinbayar Naidan of Mongolia with a match-ending ippon throw. Putin immediately stood to applaud and minutes later walked over to shake Khaibulaev’s hand.
Khaibulaev, 28, is the current world champion and has not lost at any international events since taking the title. Russia has already won two judo gold medals and a bronze earlier this week. They are the country’s first judo golds since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The bronze medals were won by Dimitri Peters of Germany and Henk Grol of the Netherlands.