Her shoulders draped in her country's tricolor flag, the heptathlon gold medalist relished her victory lap around Atlanta's Olympic Stadium.
It was a moment of special pride, for the flag was the two-starred red-white-black of Syria, and the winner was Ghada Shouaa, the country's first Olympic gold medalist.
Virtually unknown until she won the world championship last year, Shouaa took home Syria's second Olympic medal ever by winning the most multifaceted—and the most grueling—of the women's competitions.
"I wanted to show an athlete at her best, and show the Arab world at its best," she told The Washington Post.
Shouaa became the third Arab woman to win Olympic gold, after Nawal El Moutawakil of Morocco won the 400-meter hurdles in 1984 (See Aramco World, September/October 1984), and Hassiba Boulmerka of Algeria took the gold in the 1500 meters in 1992. As such, she has become a Syrian national hero and an inspiration for young athletes—especially female athletes—throughout the Middle East.
Shouaa, whose family name means "ray of light," grew up in the village of Maharda in central Syria. Long-legged even as a child, she was nicknamed ghazalah, or gazelle. She competed in cross-country, later starred in basketball, and at 14 began serious training. In 1990, at the recommendation of the Syrian national sports federation, she focused on the heptathlon.
Now, she trains in Cyprus under Russian coach Kim Bukhantsev. Because she speaks only Arabic and he only Russian, the two communicate with signals, flashcards and through an interpreter—although Bukhantsev is gradually learning Arabic.
In the heptathlon, women accumulate points in seven events held over two days: 100-meter hurdles; high jump; shot-put; 200-meter sprint; long jump; javelin toss; and 800-meter run.
After competitions in 1991 in Tokyo, Damascus and Malaysia, Shouaa traveled to Barcelona in 1992 for her first Olympic Games. She was 18 then, and the youngest heptathlete on the field. She placed 25th.
Two years later, Shouaa won the Asia Games heptathlon with 6,360 points. In 1995 she surprised the sport's stars in Gothenburg, Sweden, won 6,551 points and was crowned world champion. This year, only two months before the Atlanta games, she took top honors at Gotzis, Austria, with an impressive 6,942 points—just 349 below the world record, set by Jackie Joyner-Kersee of the us in 1988. As the Atlanta games opened, the two women faced each other head-to-head: Joyner-Kersee had won gold at the two previous Olympiads, but Shouaa's score at Gotzis surpassed every score the record-holder had garnered since the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
But there was no showdown. Early the first day, Joyner-Kersee injured a hamstring on the 100-meter hurdles. When her withdrawal was announced, Shouaa, "obviously upset," according to one observer, interrupted her own preparation and walked over to offer consolation. "I regret very much that Jackie had to give up," she later told Reuters.
After leading at the end of the first day, Shouaa covered only 6.26 meters (20' 6½") in the long jump—far from her best—and dropped into second place. Then she and Urszula Wlodarczyk of Poland both cleared 1.86 meters (6' 1¼") in the high jump, Shouaa's shot-put flew nearly two meters beyond Wlodarczyk's and Shouaa's javelin toss proved to be her best ever. Shouaa retook the lead and finished with 6,780 points, 217 beyond the total of silver medalist Natasha Sazanovich of Belarus.
"It is the dream for athletes all over the world to win, to succeed at every competition—but nothing is like this, because this is the Olympics," she said to The New York Times before leaving Atlanta. "The more you reach and gain, the more you must become humble."
In Damascus, however, when Shouaa returned home after the Games, thousands packed the airport, and she was paraded through the city to the cheers of crowds lining the streets.
As the world record appears well within her reach, Shouaa may soon have the opportunity to be one of the world's most humble athletes.
Free-lance writer Bill Strubbe is based in western Massachusetts.