(April 15, 1962 - )
Moutawakel went from a collegiate competitor to the inaugural gold medalist in the 400-meter hurdles in 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
Nawal El Moutawakel, a 1988 Iowa State graduate with a BS in physical education, has been breaking barriers and records ever since coming to Iowa State University from Morocco as a student-athlete in 1983. She was recruited to the Cyclone women’s track team sight unseen by coaches Pat Moynihan and Ron Renko, and went from a collegiate competitor to the inaugural gold medalist in the 400-meter hurdles in 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
The victory made her a national hero and set the stage for inspiring career that included serving as IOC Vice President from 2012-2016 and a member of the IOC Executive Board from 2008-2012 and 2020-. Her influence continues through membership on many IOC committees. El-Moutawakel remains a member of and has served as vice president of the athletes commission of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the world governing body of track and field.
Her Olympic triumph made her an effective advocate for women in Arab and Islamic countries as the first African woman, Muslim woman, Moroccan woman, and Cyclone woman to win Olympic gold. The only female member of her 126-person Moroccan contingent to the LA Games, she would go on to be among the first woman elected to an executive-level position in the IAAF.
El Moutawakel was born on April 15, 1962. At age 8, she injured her left leg in a fall. The injury was not properly set and she was forced to wear a cast for six months, falling a year behind in school.
El Moutawakel was only 15 when she was won her first Moroccan Championships in the 100 meters, the 200 meters and the 400 meter hurdles. Initially she was a reluctant 400-meter hurdler, a relatively new event for women that had not yet been contested in the Olympic Games. With minimal coaching and understanding of technique, she ranked 26th in the world in 1983.
None of her many achievements would have been possible without the full support of her father Mohamed El Moutawakel. He encouraged his daughter’s pursuit of her track and field goals in a cultural environment that discouraged women’s participation in athletics.
Iowa State women’s assistant track coach Pat Moynihan received a tip about El Moutawakel from Iowa State All-American sprinter and Nigerian, Sunday Uti. Moynihan and head women’s coach Ron Renko extended a offer to attend Iowa State and run for the Cyclones, sight unseen.
El Moutawakel accepted the offer and arrived in Ames in January of 1983. She had never seen snow, felt such cold weather, was learning English and didn’t even know if Pat Moynihan was a man or a woman. When Moynihan, who had coached in Saudi Arabia, greeted her in Arabic, she smiled for the first time since leaving home.
El Moutawakel started her adjustment to college life in the United States. Six weeks after coming to Ames, she faced the biggest crisis of her young life. She received a call from home that her father had been killed in a car crash eight days after her departure. Her family delayed giving her the news because they understood the challenges she was already facing adjusting to her new life. Her brother traveled to Ames to bring her home. A portent of her growing fortitude was affirmed when she decided to stay at Iowa State, in part to honor her father’s decision to allow her to seek an education.
Her 1984 season could not have been any better. Indoors, she was the Big Eight Conference 400-meter champion and earned All-America honors with a seventh-place finish in the NCAA Championships. Outdoor, she signaled her fitness and growing prowess in the 400-meter hurdles when she won the event at the Texas, Kansas and Drake Relays. Her victories in the last two meets were done in national collegiate record clockings.
She was the star of the 1984 Big Eight Outdoor Track and Field Championships, winning the difficult double of the 400-meter dash and the 400-meter hurdles. Her winning times of 55.75 in the 400-meter hurdles and 51.86 in the 400 meters her both league records. Her collegiate season climaxed with a NCAA Championship record 55.84 in the 400-meter hurdles and a fourth-place finish in the 400-meter dash.
Her performances had caught the eye of the monarch of Morocco, King Hassan II. Her country made her the only woman on her 126-person strong Olympic team. The King told her in front of the entire Moroccan squad that he knew she could bring home a gold medal.
That was far from a certainty. Her post-collegiate season had been curtailed by an ankle injury. Renko and Moynihan traveled to Los Angeles and worked with El Moutawakel on regaining her winning form. She did.
The LA Games marked the first time the 400-meter hurdles were contested at the Olympic level. American Judi Brown was the favorite and Sweden’s Ann Louise Skoglund had the fastest clockings of 55.17 after the semifinals. But in the final, El Moutawakel was the clear victor, winning Olympic Gold in 54.61 seconds. Her life would never be the same.
The King called her despite it being the middle of the night in Morocco. He decreed that all girls born on that day be named Nawal.
She stayed at Iowa State for the next four years, despite the loss of her coaches in a tragic plane crash in 1985, winning four Big Eight championships, an NCAA title, and gold medals in the Mediterranean Games (twice), University Games, and African Championships.
When she returned to Morocco in 1989, she was appointed inspector at the Ministry of Sport and Youth and then became the national sprint and hurdle coach for both men and women. In 1997 she became secretary of state for sport and youth. From 1998 to 2003 she was executive director of the BMCE Bank Foundation for Education and Environment in Casablanca, and she was director of the Sahara Sports Academy in Amby Valley, India, as well as president and founding member of the Moroccan Association of Sport and Development.
Throughout her professional career, El Moutawakel has used her popularity and influence to continue breaking down barriers for women. She has been an agent of change in the male-dominated Moroccan society, helping and inspiring other women to assert themselves through sport. She organized the first-ever Moroccan women’s 10K race through the streets of Casablanca..
She led significant change for women in sport on the international level. She is a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Coordination Commission for the London 2012 Olympic Games, and was president of the IOC Evaluation Commission for those same games, the first woman to serve in each of those capacities. She was one of eight women to carry the Olympic flag during the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Torino, Italy, which was another first for women. Her Olympic ties continue with the roles of Evaluation for the Games of XXXIII Olympiad in 2024 (2016-2017), Coordination for the Youth Olympic Games Dakar 2022 (2018-); and coordination of the Games of the XXXIV Olympiad Los Angeles 2028 (2019-). She has also been a leader in AIDS education and tsunami relief efforts.
El Moutawakel was named an All-American Citizen by the mayor of Ames, Iowa, in 1984 and was inducted into the Iowa Sport Hall of Fame in 1994. She was a member of the first class of inductees into the Iowa State University Athletics Hall of Fame in 1997. She and her husband, Mounir Bennis, have two children, Zineb and Rda, and live in Casablanca, Morocco.
The Olympics: https://www.olympic.org/ms-nawal-el-moutawakel
Cyclone Hall of Fame: https://cyclones.com/honors/hall-of-fame/nawal-el-moutawakel/47