A long jump: Women at London Olympics

Swaminathan Pillai

The London Olympic Games of 2012 are of immense significance in the history of humanity. It marks the new high for women even though there are miles to go before the world attains complete gender equality. Twenty years ago, in the Barcelona Olympics, thirty-five countries sent male only teams. In the Atlanta Olympics of 1996, twenty-six nations sent only male participants. In the Beijing Olympics of 2008, three countries; Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei kept their women out of the games.

This year the first female Olympic athletes from Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar appeared at the opening ceremony in London on Friday, ending these nations’ longstanding practice of sending male-only teams to the world’s biggest sporting event.

“This is a major boost for gender equality," International Olympic Committee president, Jacques Rogge, said addressing 60,000 spectators and thousands of athletes at the opening ceremony.

Saudi Arabia’s Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani and Sarah Attar walked alongside their male fellow team members, wearing traditional hijabs. They will represent the kingdom in the 78kg category in judo and 800 meters respectively.

Brunei has broken its no-women tradition by sending the runner Maziah Mahusin. “I feel very proud of myself, and I feel honored,” she said. “It’s kind of like being an ambassador for my country.” However, the International Judo Federation has ruled that Shaherkani will have to fight without a hijab. This is a decision that is likely to spark controversy back home in the ultra-conservative kingdom.

Still, the very fact that now all 204 national teams feature female athletes is a significant advance for international women’s rights. Only 16 years ago, at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, 26 countries did not have women on their teams.

“You know, it’s a human right. Women have the right to practise sport, they want to practise, they love sport, and they are attracted to sport. We must make sure that barriers are broken down,” Jacques Rogge remarked earlier this month after Saudi Arabia announced that it would be sending women to the Olympics in London.

“It is such a huge honor and I hope that it can really make some big strides over there to get more women involved in sport,” Saudi Arabia’s Sarah Attar said, according to a release by the IOC.

“I definitely think that my participation in these Olympic Games can increase women’s participation in sports in general,” the 17-year-old athlete said. “I can only hope for the best for them and that we can really get some good strides going for women in the Olympics further,” she added.

The appearance of women from each of the 200-plus participating nations captures the sea change across the sports landscape. Until the 1984 Los Angeles Games, women were not even allowed to run a marathon.

“We need to celebrate and recognize” such advances, said Janice Forsyth, the director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario.

Saudi Arabia’s government and sports officials had faced mounting international pressure as the country continued a policy of allowing only men to participate in the Games. In March, the International Olympic Committee said it was confident that Saudi Arabia would send women to the London Games. But contradictory signals were sent by Saudi officials in the ensuing months. Meanwhile, two other Muslim countries — Qatar and Brunei — said they would send women to the Games for the first time.

Saudi Arabia is considered the most significant of the three, given its size, oil influence and the restrictions placed on women in daily life.

Women will comprise more than 40 percent of the approximately 10,500 athletes at the London Games, roughly the same percentage of women that participated in the 2010 Winter Games, in Vancouver. The field for London includes 269 women from the United States, compared with a delegation of 261 men, a reflection of the effect of Title IX, the federal legislation enacted 40 years ago that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender.

Advocates for women’s sports welcomed the token participation of Saudi women, along with greater opportunities for female athletes in general, but also noted that the playing field remained far from level in international sport.

“This is a breakthrough for the two women who will compete under the Saudi flag, but it raises the irony that millions of women and girls in Saudi Arabia are still denied an opportunity to participate as a matter of government policy,” said Mink Worden, the director of global initiatives for Human Rights Watch.

Women’s advocates noted that Sarah Attar did her training outside Saudi Arabia and said it was important that women living in the country, which is governed by Islamic law, be given similar opportunities to participate in sport. Attar was born and raised in California and attends Pepperdine University.

Severe everyday restrictions are placed on Saudi women from driving to travelling to marriage to opening a bank account. Effectively, women there are barred from sport, according to Human Rights Watch, which said that Saudi Arabia had done the “bare minimum” on Thursday to avoid international contempt and a possible ban from the Games.

Human Rights Watch admonished the I.O.C. to use this moment to demand several concrete benchmarks from Saudi officials: allowing sports for girls in schools, creating women’s sections in the Saudi Olympic Committee and related sports federations and allowing women who live in the country to compete in international events.

“This is an advance, a precedent that could be difficult for hard-liners to roll back,” Worden said of Thursday’s announcement. “At the same time, the I.O.C. has a real responsibility to get genuine reform. Otherwise, disallowing sport for women inside the country is still a violation of the Olympic charter, which bans gender discrimination.”

Forsyth said that despite the progress among Muslim countries, power in the Olympic movement remains concentrated in the hands of white European men. Boxing, a new sport for women in London, provides only three weight classes for women, compared with 10 for men. And softball (along with baseball) has been dropped from these Games, a blow to women from the United States, Asia and Australia.

Women also continue to be sexualized in the marketing of their sports. Both badminton and boxing considered requiring women to wear skirts but backed off in the face of widespread criticism and ridicule, making skirts optional.

Experts have also criticized a new I.O.C. policy on determining who can compete as a woman, comparing the regulation to invasive sex-testing procedures and saying it was based more on social standards than science.

“It’s far too easy to wash our hands and say everything is equal without pointing out the nuanced ways equity is still a long way away,” Forsyth said.

Another significant event of the London Olympics is that Egypt is sending thirty-four women. This is the largest-ever participation of women in the Olympics from anywhere in the Arab or Islamic world.

Women have been participating in Olympic Games since 1900. Still, they face severe restrictions in several parts of the world. There is a big distance to cover before humanity achieves complete gender equality.

(The author is an academician and a freelance journalist)

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