When the qualifying heats for the women’s 400 m begin on Aug. 4 at the London Olympics, reigning Olympic champion Christine Ohuruogu and reigning world champion Amantle Montsho will likely sprint around the track in a time of around 50 seconds as they try to qualify for the final. Maziah Mahusin, who will represent the Southeast Asian nation of Brunei Darussalam, will unlikely pose either of them much of a threat. Her fastest time, achieved at the Southeast Asian Youth Athletics Championships this May, is 1:01.14. “I know it’s not fast, but it’s the best for me to date,” she tells TIME. “I am working on improving my time to one that my coach and I can be proud of.”
Finishing 10 seconds behind the world’s best 400-m runners won’t matter much to Mahusin. As the first female athlete from Brunei ever to compete at the Olympics, the 19-year-old’s Olympic dreams will already have come true.
Mahusin has not met the Olympic qualifying time of 51.55 seconds, but she will race in London regardless thanks to the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) “concept of universality.” The rule gives National Olympic Committees “the possibility of entering unqualified athletes in athletics and swimming, should they not have athletes qualified in these sports.” These special berths exist to spread Olympic ideals of openness and inclusion to nations that may otherwise send no competitors and to encourage the development of sports programs in those countries. “It is fundamental that, every two years, the opening ceremony sees the whole world parading under the banner of the Olympic rings,” Jean-Claude Killy, a member of the IOC, said of the policy at a 2009 Olympics Congress. “This dimension must be preserved at all costs.”
Brunei, an Islamic sultanate located on the northern shore of Borneo, sent a single athlete to each of the Olympics in 1996, 2000 and 2004. For the first time in its brief Olympics history, this year it will send two athletes — Mahusin and men’s 400-m runner Ak Haify Tajuddin Pg Rositi.
But the gender of one of those two athletes is what really makes Brunei’s tiny team historic. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the only countries besides Brunei that have never fielded female athletes. This year, Qatar has accepted three wild cards from the IOC to field women in air-rifle, swimming and track events in London. And in June, Saudi Arabia’s Olympic Committee bowed to international pressure and agreed to field female athletes who qualify on their own merits, and without a special berth, for the Games. But their favored candidate — the equestrian Dalma Rushdi Malhas — failed to qualify after an injury sidelined her horse. With less than one month to go, officials in Saudi Arabia — which bans sports for girls in state schools — are still scouring the country for female athletes who could compete in London.
“It is an important advance that Brunei and Qatar are sending women to compete in the Games,” says Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “And not just for precedent, but also because it reinforces what a true outlier Saudi Arabia has become on women’s rights, broadly speaking.”
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Despite being a sign of progress in Brunei, Mahusin says female athletes still face plenty of challenges in her country. She has watched the ranks of her female competitors thin over the years. Cultural norms in Brunei tend to value a woman’s scholarly pursuits over athletic ones. “Some parents discourage their children from giving full attention to sports as they are concerned that this may affect their studies,” she says.
Religion may play a role too. Brunei, which has a legal system that mixes English common law and Islamic law, banned women’s soccer in 2006. Officials claimed that women playing the sport contradicted an edict by the nation’s religious authority because soccer is a “rough sport portraying a manlike manner.” Somewhat incongruously, officials have no problem with women playing rugby — a far more aggressive activity. “The public is forever puzzled to which sport is allowed for women to partake,” one reader wrote in a letter to the Brunei Times. “If swimming and rugby are allowed, why not [soccer]?”
Mahusin, who races without a hijab, is already the face of female athletics in Brunei. Newspapers in the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, have charted her Olympic progress for months, and one newspaper recently praised her for “running into history books” as Brunei’s first female Olympian.
Given the lack of female competitors back home, Mahusin must rely on the men’s team for motivation and companionship. “It has been a lonely journey for me because I don’t have a female sparring partner to work with,” she says. “I have to train with a lot of male athletes, which is difficult for me as there are differences in stamina and endurance.” But training with the men has, no doubt, pushed her to work even harder. It may be one of the reasons she’s now in a position to represent her country in London — and fulfill her goal of shaving a second off her personal best.
She doesn’t think about winning medals and says it’s enough to compete in the same Games as two of her idols, American sprinters Sanya Richards-Ross and Allyson Felix. “I’m happy to see the flag of Brunei Darussalam being hoisted in London,” she says. “I’m looking forward to the opportunity of meeting world-class athletes.” Inspired by Mahusin, perhaps Brunei’s young athletes will one day rank among them.