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Shouaa, Ghada (1973–)

Shouaa, Ghada
(1973–)

Ghada Shouaa is a retired Syrian female athlete who won the gold medal in the heptathalon at the 1996 Olympic Summer Games. She is the holder of the fifth-best heptathlon score of all time.

PERSONAL HISTORY

Shouaa (also Shu'a) was born on 10 September 1973 in the Syrian town of Maharda, northwest of Hama. Standing at six feet, two inches, she played on the Syrian women's national basketball team from 1989–1991. It was not until 1991 that she competed in her first heptathlon, a grueling two-day outdoor track-and-field contest consisting of seven individual events—100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200-meter dash, long jump, javelin throw, and the 800-meter dash. Heptathletes accumulate points for performance based on predetermined formulas for each event.

Shouaa quickly went on to compete in her first major international competition at the August 1991 World Championships in Tokyo, where she placed last in the event. Shouaa won the silver medal in the event at the Asian Games in November 1991, but came in eighteenth at the July 1992 Olympic Summer Games in Barcelona. She continued to acquit herself well in regional events, taking the silver at the Mediterranean Games in June 1993 and the gold at both the October 1993 and October 1994 Asian Games.

For the next four years, Shouaa was one of the world's premier heptathletes. In May 1995 she won the heptathlon at the famous Götzis competition in Austria, and took gold at the World Championships in Göteborg in August. Shouaa won the 1996 Götzis event as well.

Her moment of crowning glory came during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Her main rival at the games, veteran American heptathlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, withdrew from the competition after the first event. Shouaa went on to win the heptathlon with 6,780 points on 28 July 1996—earning her the title "the world's greatest female athlete." It was Syria's first and only Olympic gold medal, and both Syria and the wider Arab world were delirious with joy. She returned to a hero's welcome in Syria.

A serious injury in 1997 kept her out of competition until August 1999, when she placed third at the World Championships in Seville. At the September 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, she sustained another injury during the first event, could not even finish the race, and dropped out of further competition. Shouaa retired in July 2001. She later moved to Simmern, Germany, and formed the Ghada Shouaa German-Technio-Trade, an international luxury car sales company.

INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS

Shouaa's career as a heptathlete only spanned a decade. But during that period, her athletic talent rocketed her to global stardom. Her legendary performances also helped advance the cause of women's athletics within the Arab and Islamic worlds. With the exception of North African Arab countries such as Morocco and Algeria, the Arab world generally has not produced many world-class athletes, male or female, competing and winning international championships. The record for women has been especially meager: Only Shouaa and three other Arab women have ever won an Olympic gold medal.

Recent decades have witnessed more and more female Arab athletes like Shouaa competing in international events, despite the objections of Islamic religious conservatives. To be sure, Shouaa was a partial exception as a Christian competing for a country with an officially secular government. Like all Arab countries Syria is still socially conservative, and a woman wearing shorts and a tank-top in front of both male and female spectators is considered immodest and even immoral by some conservatives. Her performances set an example of a determined Arab woman willing to compete in the international arena according to global standards.

THE WORLD'S PERSPECTIVE

Shouaa's accomplishments were hailed throughout the Arab world, especially in her native Syria. Her gold medal at the 1996 Olympics was the first Olympic gold medal ever for the country, a country that as of 2007 has won only two previous Olympic medals (one silver, one bronze). Yet in the United States in particular, her 1996 Olympic victory in Atlanta—winning the title of "the world's greatest female athlete" in America—went largely unnoticed after American superstar Jackie Joyner-Kersee had dropped out of the heptathlon. American television stopped devoting much coverage to the remaining six heptathlon events after Joyner-Kersee left the competition. American viewers and sports fans thus did not grasp the full magnitude of Shouaa's victory, and how it was hailed in the Arab world and globally.

For her part, Joyner-Kersee complimented Shouaa on the grace that she displayed when Joyner-Kersee was injured, even though the injury left the field wide open for the lanky Syrian. In her 2001 autobiography, Joyner-Kersee wrote that when she dropped out after the first heptathlon event at Atlanta, "Ghada Shouaa, a Syrian heptathlete, came over and hugged me. Then she kissed me on both cheeks. She also kissed Bobby [her husband and coach]. That was the greatest compliment a competitor could have paid me." From the Prologue to Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Sonia Steptoe, A Kind of Grace: The Autobiography of the World's Greatest Female Athlete (Grand Central Publishing: 1997).

BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS

Name: Ghada Shouaa

Birth: 1973, Maharda, Syria

Nationality: Syrian

PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:

  • 1989–1991: Member of the Syrian women's national basketball team
  • 1991: Competes her first heptathlon; later wins silver medal in the heptathlon at the Asian Games
  • 1992: Places eighteenth in the heptathletes at the Barcelona Olympic games
  • 1993: Wins a gold medal at the Asian Games
  • 1994: Wins a gold medal at the Asian Games
  • 1995: Wins a gold medal at Götzis; wins a gold medal at the World Championships
  • 1996: Wins a gold medal at Götzis; wins a gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics
  • 1997: Sustains an injury that sidelines her for two seasons
  • 1999: Wins a bronze medal at the World Championships
  • 2000: Drops out of the Sydney Olympics due to injury
  • 2001: Retires from competition

LEGACY

Shouaa's achievements were not just impressive for their time. Her score of 6,942 points, set in the heptathlon on 26 May 1996 at Götzis, still stands as the all-time Asian record for the event. Shouaa still holds the fifth-best heptathlon score ever achieved by a female heptathlete. Among the women achieving the top ten all-time heptathlete scores, she remains the only one to come from a country outside Europe and the United States. Finally, she still is the only Syrian to have won Olympic gold and one of only four Arab women ever to have done so.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Downes, Steven. "Cautious Olympic Champion Wants to Wait and See," AFP (19 August 1999). Available from http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/athletics/1434109.stm.

Ghada Shouaa's webpage (in German). Available from http://www.shouaa.com/start.html.

International Association of Athletics Federation profile of Ghada Shouaa. Available from http://www.iaaf.org/athletes/athlete%3D67124/.

"Shouaa Calls Time." BBC (11 July 2001). Available from http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/athletics/1434109.stm.

                                   Michael R. Fischbach

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