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Running Free: Mark Danner on an Athlete's Trials View other pieces in "The New Yorker"
By Mark Danner February 26 & March 4, 1996
Tags: Olympics Print

That excellence equals beauty was taken for granted by the Greeks, fathers of the Olympiad, and Hassiba Boulmerka embodies the equation's power. Arms splayed, head back, eyes closed, the Algerian woman bursts the tape, re?nacting, perhaps, her triumph at Barcelona in 1992, or, more likely, dreaming of the touch of Atlanta's track: she is the world's greatest at fifteen hundred metres, and the presumptive favorite at the next Olympics.

Breaking the tape in Tokyo in 1991, her first world title, she buried both hands in her hair, opened her mouth wide, and screamed, and went on screaming -- "For joy and for shock," she said later, "for Algeria's pride and Algeria's history," and, finally, "for every Algerian woman, every Arabic woman." In a country racked by a savage civil war between a corrupt, long-entrenched authoritarian state and a rising fundamentalist movement, Boulmerka -- insist though she would that she preferred "to talk about athletics rather than politics" -- instantly became everyone's symbol: the then President had kissed her publicly on the forehead, while the imams, not impressed with the baggy boys' shorts she had worn even as her competitors availed themselves of Lycra, denounced her for "running with naked legs in front of thousands of men."

In Algeria, these are complicated and bloody matters, near the heart of an intricate cultural war that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands, including hundreds of women attacked because of their Western dress. For a woman who, bare-legged, had risen to become the world's most famous Algerian, there could be no neutral stance, and before last fall's elections Boulmerka stood publicly to support the country's ruler. She trains mostly abroad now, but in Atlanta this summer, "running with naked legs," she will remain an inescapable political symbol. Reverence may demand beauty be covered, but here excellence demands it be revealed. The Greeks would have well understood.

© 2021 Mark Danner