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Heptathlete Shouaa shines to give Syria its first ever gold

Ghada Shouaa Getty

Syrian athletes were marking their eighth appearance at the Games in Atlanta, but the country still awaited its first Olympic champion. Indeed, only one Syrian had ever made it onto the podium - wrestler Joseph Atiyeh, who won a silver in 1984. Now, 12 years on, Syrians had real cause to believe they had a chance of their first gold, thanks to the brilliance of heptathlete Ghada Shouaa.

Shouaa had started off as a basketball player and had gone on to represent her country in the sport, but she switched to athletics while still in her teens. Barely had she taken up the heptathlon than she was competing at the world championships, finishing in last place but picking up plenty of experience. She proved a quick and able learner.

Her results improved rapidly. She won a silver at the Asian Championships and then finished a creditable 18th at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, despite competing with an injury. Over the next couple of years, she moved up the rankings – going from outsider to genuine contender for top-ten places and more.

In 1995, she proved she belong in the elite when she won the world title in Gothenburg. It was a victory that immediately established her as one of the favourites for Atlanta.

Ghada SHOUAA Getty

Her closest challenger was expected to be the American Jackie Joyner-Kersee, but she came to the Games suffering from a hamstring injury and dropped out of the event following the opening event, the 100m hurdles. By contrast, Shouaa set a personal best in both the hurdles and the shot put and ended the first day more than 100 points clear of Poland's Urszula Wlodarczyk.

There was a change in the lead on the second day, with Natalya Sazanovich of Belarus producing a 6.70m long jump to go a few points clear, but Shouaa responded with a huge 55.70m javelin throw to go well clear. In the 800m, she went quicker than all of her closest rivals to extend her advantage to more than 200 points, earning her – and her country – a first ever gold medal.

The rest of Shouaa’s career was, sadly, marred by recurring injuries. She did take a bronze medal at the 1999 World Championships, but her hopes of defending her Olympic title were scuppered by injury and she retired later in 2000. She remains her country’s only Olympic gold medallist.

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