“As I crossed the line, I thrust a fist into the air. It was a symbol of victory, of defiance. It was to say: ‘I did it! I won! And now if you kill me, it’ll be too late. I’ve made history!” – Hassiba Boulmerka – The Constantine Gazelle
Hailed as Algeria’s greatest athlete, Hassiba Boulmerka aka the Constantine Gazelle defied death threats from Islamic extremists to capture gold in the 1500m Women event at the 1992 Barcelona Games and became her country’s first Olympic Gold medalist.
Hassiba Boulmerka was born on the 10th of July 1968, the fourth of seven children. Specializing in the 800m and 1500m middle distant races, she started running competitively in 1978 at the age of ten, and was soon making impact locally and nationally.
Ten years later, Hassiba competed in her first Olympics representing Algeria at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea. But she did not make it past the preliminary heats in either the 800m or 1500m events she competed in.
“I screamed for joy and for shock, and for much more. I was screaming for Algeria’s pride and Algeria’s history, and still more. I screamed finally for every Algerian woman, every Arabic woman.”
Undeterred, she pressed on and worked harder and in 1991 announced herself to the world by winning the 800m at the Golden Gala race in Rome, Italy. About a month later, Hassiba Boulmerka became the first African or Arab woman to win a world title in track and field, by taking gold medal at the 3rd edition of IAAF World Championships in Tokyo, Japan.
Thousands of supporters came to welcome the Algerian athletes on their arrival in Algiers. Boulmerka and fellow gold medalist Noureddine Morceli were driven in an open-topped car through the streets of Algiers thronged with well-wishers.
“It was Friday prayers at our local mosque, and the imam said that I was not a Muslim; because I had run in shorts, shown my arms and legs. He said I was anti-Muslim.”
Unfortunately, this achievement did not go down well with some religious extremists who felt the race tracks was not a place for women. Instead of adulations for the glory the Constantine Gazelle brought to her country, she received death threats in the run-up to the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, and could not train in Algeria because of the danger to her life.
Forced to move to Berlin, security around Boulmerka was tightened as she continued her training for the games. She did not march with the Algerian team during the opening ceremony, but arrived in Barcelona on the eve of her races due to the situation. In the final of the Women 1500m on the 8th of August, 1992 Hassiba Boulmerka clocked a time of 3:55.30 to come first and win Algeria’s first Olympic gold medal.
Boulmerka did not get a victory tour this time around as Algeria was torn in a war. At some point, she had to relocate to Cuba to escape being killed. At the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart, she did win a bronze medal in the 1500m, but Hassiba Boulmerka came back in 1995 to win the 1500m gold for the second at the World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden.
In Atlanta 1996, Hassiba Boulmerka took part in the Centennial Olympic Games, but could not defend her title after spraining her ankle in the semi-finals. Failing also to defend her world title the following year. She retired from sports at the end of the 1997 season and has since returned to Algeria where she is a successful business woman.
Afro Tourism salutes this outstanding athlete, world and Olympic champion, African record holder, city icon, national heroine, women’s right advocate and successful business woman, Hassiba Boulmerka!
Did You Know?
- Hassiba Boulmerka was born in Constantine, Algeria on July 10, 1968.
- She took up running competitively at the age of 10.
- At the age of 20, she represented Algeria at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
- Boulmerka won gold medals in the 800m and 1500m events at the 11th Mediterranean Games held in Athens, Greece in 1991. She defended both titles two years later at the 12th edition of the games in 1993 at Languedoc-Roussillon, France.
- Nicknamed the Constantine Gazelle, Hassiba Boulmerka became a world champion and first African woman to win a world title when she clocked a time of 4:02.21 to win the Women’s 1500m at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo.
- Boulmerka received death threats from extremists who saw her as anti-Muslim for running with the conventional running gear.
- She was forced to continue her training in Berlin during the build up to the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, as security around her was tightened due to the threats to her life.
- Despite the odds, Hassiba Boulmerka won the Women’s 1500m event at the 1992 Olympic Games to become Algeria’s first Olympic champion.
- After failing to defend her world title in 1993, settling for a bronze instead, she reclaimed the title at the 1995 World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden.
- In 1999, she was one of 10 Olympic athletes elected to serve as member of the International Olympics Committee.
- Her time of 3:55.30 set on August 8, 1992 at the Barcelona Olympics is still the African record in the Women’s 1500m.
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