By ADAM SHERGOLD
For most athletes at the London Olympics, their battle starts when they take their place on the starting blocks.
But for Wojdan Shaherkani and Tahmina Kohistani, just taking part in London felt like a gold medal victory. To reach the Games, they have had to overcome political, social, religious and sporting obstacles
Judoka Shaherkani's Olympics lasted just over a minute this morning, but the fact she made it to her bout with Puerto Rico's Melissa Mojica meant it was a revolutionary moment for the women of Saudi Arabia.
The country's ultra-conservative clergy tried to destroy her ambitions to be Saudi's first female Olympian, before an argument about the type of headscarf she should wear jeopardised her place at the eleventh hour.
The Olympics ended in disappointment for Noor Hussain Al-Malki of Qatar, who pulled up shortly after the start of her 100m heat
And though Afghanistan's Kohistani trailed in last in the 100 metres - in a time of 14.42 seconds - the warm appreciation of the London crowd who recognised her historic feat must have been the greatest of feelings.
She has suffered months of harassment from men who don't believe women should be permitted to play sport.
Shinoona Salah al-Habsi (Centre) of Oman certainly stood out on the starting blocks with her hijab and top in national colours
Both have made a strong statement to the people of their respective countries and the world with their determination to take part and their dignity.
As did Noor Hussain Al-Malki, only the fourth female athlete from Qatar to enter the Olympics, who lasted just a dozen strides before pulling up injured in her 100m heat.
The record books will show DNF - Did Not Finish - but they were significant strides.
Shinoona Salah Al-Habsi of Oman and Sulaiman Fatima Dahman from Yemen are unlikely to trouble the favourites for gold, but as they sprinted down the track in the Olympic Stadium wearing colourful hijabs there was a sense of progress.
Shaherkani, Saudi Arabia's first ever female athlete, squares up to Puerto Rican Melissa Mojica in their first round bout, which lasted just over a minute
Shaherkani, just 16, comes from Saudi Arabia, a country of ultra-Conservatism where women are banned from driving and cannot leave the house without a male chaperone, let alone compete in the biggest sporting event in the world in front of millions around the world.
She had been rocked by the barbs of the country's clergy, who strongly discourage female participation in sport in any form and labelled her the 'Prostitute of the Olympics.'
Her family have been bombarded with racial abuse, according to reports, with many trying to claim Shaherkani did not represent their country.
Kohistani looks at the scoreboard after her 100m heat, though her time of 14.42 seconds meant she finished last in the standings
There was then a row which threatened to end her chances once and for all. Her national Olympic Committee said she could only compete if she was wearing a hijab - a hair covering worn by many Muslim women.
But judo's governing body was worried that a head covering could be dangerous in the grapples and tumbles of the sport.
Kohistani was warmly received by the crowd at the Olympics Stadium as she lined up for her heat this morning
Shaherkani was powerless - a political pawn - as negotiations went backwards and forwards between the two until a compromise was reached.
And so she strode out - a little tentatively but energised by cheers from the British crowd as loud as any reserved for home athletes - wearing a tightly-wrapped black headscarf.
But there was another problem - Shaherkani is only a blue belt, two below her opponent Melissa Mojica, and the outcome was inevitable.
A little later, Kohistani lined up in heat four of the women's 100 metres. Alongside her were competitors from Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Micronesia, Cape Verde and San Marino - countries smaller than Afghanistan but light years ahead in terms of sporting equality.
Contrasting cultures: Oman's Shinoona Salah al-Habsi (Left) and Yemen's Fatima Sulaiman Dahman walk off the track with Andorra's Cristina Llovera
But as IOC spokesman Mark Adams said: 'If someone's injured then they are injured. She is here and she is competing. That is what matters.
'I think we should be celebrating today because we had two athletes from two of three countries who had never sent women athletes to the Games.'
They thought it was all over... then Zamzam strolled home
Last but not least: Somalia's Zamzam Mohamed Farah crosses the finish line of a women's 400-meter heat
They say it’s the taking part that counts.
In which case, Somalian runner Zamzam Mohamed Farah did her country proud in the women’s 400m yesterday – even though she finished nearly half a minute after the winner.
Zamzam, 21, is one of only two Somalian athletes at the Games – each nation is eligible for two guaranteed places, one male, one female – and she was her country’s proud flag-bearer at the opening ceremony.
Yesterday, dressed in a Muslim-suitable track outfit designed to cover most of her body, she gamely took on some of the best in the world – and lost.
Winner Francena McCorory (US) finished first in 50.78 seconds. Zamzam came last with a time of 1min 20.48sec, with the next-to-last competitor a good 25 seconds ahead of her.
Many in the crowd at the Olympic stadium appeared to assume the race was over, not realising that Zamzam had yet to amble across the finish line.
But her performance didn’t go unnoticed on the internet, where she became the subject of ridicule, in some cases, and admiration in others.
One wrote: ‘Can I just give a big shout to Zamzam Farah for being my favorite Somali woman ever.’
But another said: ‘Zamzam, you cannot run! You suck.’
Somalia’s determined Olympic hopefuls have overcome challenges in their war-torn country that few other athletes encounter.
Training facilities are virtually non-existent and those that do operate are often pock-marked with bullet-holes.
A Somali Athletics Federation official said recently: ‘The security situation has hampered our efforts, and the resources we have had to prepare the athletes were unspeakable.
‘But I can assure you that our athletes are strong in spirit.’
Zamzam wasn’t the only 400m runner to fail to break the one-minute barrier yesterday.
Djibouti’s Zourah Ali finished in 1min 5.37sec, while Macedonia’s Hristina Risteska clocked 1min 0.86sec.
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