Rio 2016: Who are the most inspirational women at the Olympics so far?

From the refugee swimmer who made a splash to the born-and-bred favela dweller who took home Brazil’s first gold of the Games, Gruffudd Owen takes a look at the women who have made their mark on Rio 2016

With a total of 11,494 athletes representing 206 nations from every corner of the globe in 306 events across 28 different sports, the Olympic Games celebrate life’s immense diversity, complexity and vibrancy.

While there have indeed been many who have benefited from immense financial backing to reach Rio, there are others who have had to deal with the most challenging experiences imaginable, only to emerge on the other side stronger, unbroken, and Olympian.

Just four days in and Rio 2016 has already served up its fair share of remarkable stories. What is noticeable, however, is the fact that the protagonists of the most profound episodes of triumph over adversity are women.

It was only until relatively recently that competing nations in the Olympics began to redress the patent gender imbalance at the Games. According to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), there are around 4,700 women competing at Rio, constituting approximately 45 per cent of the total number of participants – a record high.

Although this is certainly a step in the right direction, there is still work to be done – and yet the most powerful story of the Games belongs to an 18-year-old woman whose circumstances have led her to compete at Rio under the banner of the Refugee Olympic Team.

Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini stunned the world by finishing first in the opening heat of the women’s 100m butterfly on Saturday, just one year after helping to drag a boat overcrowded with asylum seekers fleeing civil war across the Aegean Sea to the shores of Lesbos, saving 18 lives.

As well as triumphing in the pool, Mardini’s other goal in Rio is to "show the world that ‘refugee’ is not a bad word”, adding that she has one simple message to share at the Games: “Never give up.”

Meanwhile, cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten has been inundated with messages of support after the Dutchwoman suffered a potentially life-threatening crash in Sunday’s road race. While the 33-year-old remains in hospital with concussion and fractures in her back, she is conscious and has been tweeting her thanks to all those wishing her a speedy recovery.

On Monday, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad of the USA wrote the first chapter of her own inspirational Olympic tale.

The 30-year-old – born and raised in New Jersey – became the first American Olympian to represent her country wearing a hijab, competing in the women’s sabre individual. 

Although Muhammad was eliminated at the last-16 stage, she takes another stab at fencing glory in the women’s team sabre on Saturday, and hopes that her unique and very visible presence within the US Olympic squad can help initiate a golden era based on diversity and optimism.

"It's been a truly rewarding experience to not just be a member of Team USA but also to represent so many different people around the world,” she says.

“I feel like this is a great moment for Team USA to be even more diverse than we have in the past and I'm just looking forward to representing myself, my community and my country." 

Judoka Majlinda Kelmendi made history by clinching Kosovo’s first-ever Olympic gold medal on Sunday, winning the women’s 52kg judo event.

Kelmendi flew the Kosovan flag at the opening ceremony – the first in which the fledgling eastern European nation has participated – and has since drawn praise from the President of Kosovo, the US Ambassador to the country and the Prime Minister of Albania, with whom Kosovo has strong ties.

And no article on instances of Olympic heroism would be complete without mentioning a host nation success story.

Brazilian judoka Rafaela Silva ­won the hosts’ first gold medal of the Games in the women’s 57kg class on Monday – four years after suffering racial abuse following her disqualification at London 2012 in the same discipline.

The 24-year-old originally hails from the Cidade de Deus (City of God), the impoverished Rio favela where drug abuse and violence are rife.

Silva’s father persuaded her to join a judo club during childhood so that she could avoid the danger of everyday life in the favela; her triumph on Monday has seen her emphatically repay the faith placed in her, and serves as a striking symbol of victory against all odds.

"I believe some of my family and friends did not have the money to buy tickets to see me. The kids would love it and I want to create a dream for them, because nobody there [in the favela] has a dream,” Silva said in the aftermath of her victory.

"Even if it takes time as it did for me to realise my dream, but after four years I made it happen, so they should follow that."

This will not be the last of the life-affirming tales told in Rio this fortnight.

It is also worth keeping an eye out for American boxer Claressa Shields, the London 2012 women’s middleweight champion who survived a turbulent childhood involving a drug addict mother and a father who would regularly spend time in jail. Just 17 when she won gold four years ago, she heads to Rio as a strong contender to defend her crown.

Elsewhere, marathon runner Nary Ly will become the first-ever woman to compete in a long-distance event for Cambodia in the marathon on Sunday. The 44-year-old had to leave her homeland – and her family – when she was just nine years old, and after being abandoned by a relative in her adoptive country of France, she was eventually taken in by a foster family, who provided her with the education she needed to pursue her dreams. Entirely self-taught, Ly began running while studying for her post-doctorate in New York, and has no personal coach – yet in Rio this summer, the scientist will achieve what no other Cambodian woman has managed to achieve.

Seven women, seven truly inspirational stories. And with the Games not even at the halfway mark, there will doubtless be many more extraordinary episodes to come from Rio over the coming days.