Even before the torch in the Olympic Stadium was officially lit on July 27th for the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, headlines around the world were all broadcasting the same message: London 2012 was the Year of the Woman. With the inclusion of female athletes from Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, it was the first time in Olympic history that every single participating nation had sent women to the competition. “The London Olympics strike early for gender equality,” declared Time magazine, while the Toronto Star asserted that “the 2012 Olympic Games have been dominated by female athletes.”
A quick search on Google and a little bit of browsing through popular media outlets reveals a hoard of articles on this topic, all praising the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for its efforts in finally bringing women from all participating nations to the Olympics. At the opening ceremony, IOC president Jacques Rogge proudly declared this moment to be “a major boost for gender equality” as the crowd cheered wildly. Caught up in the feel-good spirit of the Olympics, it is easy to gloss over the implications of these words. But what does the IOC actually mean by “gender equality”? For most people, gender equality would mean an equal treatment of both males and females with the same opportunities and liberties granted to both sexes.
The casual viewer would most certainly have a similar definition in mind when they see Rogge’s speech on TV, and arguably, this is the sense in which the IOC intends Rogge’s words to be interpreted. In other words, according to the IOC, the London 2012 Olympics mark a progression towards achieving gender equality. As a small aside, I would like to explain why I will now use equity as opposed to equality in the rest of my piece.
I think it’s easiest to illustrate the difference between the terms equality and equity by using an example. Gender equality means that if a woman and a man can each lift 100 pounds, they will be able to participate in the Olympics. Gender equity on the other hand recognizes that, in general, women and men have different levels of strength and it would be unfair to judge them based on the same criteria. I believe that although the IOC and the media incorrectly use the term “gender equality,” they are actually advocating for “gender equity.” And by finally sending women from all countries to the Olympic Games, the IOC is in fact asserting that it has provided a major boost for gender equity, not equality.
But behind the IOC’s proclamation of this sudden breakthrough for gender equity, there is a hidden story. In the countless articles celebrating this supposed victory, not one mentions the story of how the six women from Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia actually reached the Olympics Games.
Take for instance hurdler Maziah Mahusin, Brunei’s lone female athlete. Despite the fact that her personal best result was 10 seconds off the official qualifying time for the Games, she was allowed to represent her country owing to the International Olympic Committee’s “concept of universality.” This concept allows the IOC to grant wild cards to nations that are unable to produce qualifying athletes. A similar story can be told for all three of Qatar’s first ever female athletes: Bahiya Al-Hamad, Nada Arkaji and Noor al-Malki were all given wild cards to compete when they failed to qualify on their own.
But the story of the first two female athletes from Saudi Arabia, judo player Wodjan Sharkhani and runner Sarah Attar, is perhaps the most intriguing. Both Sharkhani and Attar failed to qualify, but they were not given wild cards; instead, according to Rogge, they were allowed in the Olympics due to a special allowance from the IOC “based on the quality of the athletes.”
In a country where physical education for girls is banned in school and where there isn’t a single women’s sports team, how were Sharkhani and Attar able to reach a level of athleticism considered acceptable for international competition? In the first instance, Sharkhani received her judo training at home from her father, who is a coach and international referee in judo. In the second instance, Attar was able to represent Saudi Arabia on account of holding a dual U.S./Saudi Arabian citizenship – in fact, she has actually spent her entire life in California. Attar was a member of her high school’s track and field team, and now trains at Pepperdine University in southern California.
Compared to the average Saudi Arabian woman, Sharkhani and Attar had privileges that gave them exponentially better chances of competing at the Olympics. Both Sharkhani and Attar’s stories depict situations that are completely inconceivable for the average Saudi Arabian woman.
A regular girl growing up in the deeply religious and politically strict Saudi Arabian kingdom would have no hope of receiving training at home from a sports professional, let alone be allowed to run on her school’s track and field team. A report released by Human Rights Watch in February 2012 reveals the deplorable state of women’s sports in Saudi Arabia. All public sporting facilities are reserved exclusively for men, and women’s sporting clubs have been banned in the country since 2010. This leaves only one option for women who wish to exercise: “health centers,” which require a membership fee and are often connected to a hospital, lacking facilities such as swimming pools, playing fields, or running tracks. There is also no physical education for girls in public schools, colleges or universities, and efforts to form girls’ teams have been unsuccessful.
Unsurprisingly, Sharkhani and Attar’s participation in the Olympics was looked upon unfavourably by some members of the conservative Saudi Arabian population. One Twitter user from Saudi Arabia went as far as to spread a hashtag calling the women “the prostitutes of the Olympics.” The tweet generated both support and heated criticism, with many Saudi Arabian men and women on Twitter denouncing such views. The backlash against the hashtag from within Saudi Arabia itself reflects a growing trend among some of the country’s population to adopt a more open approach to women’s sports. A number of organizations in the Arabian Peninsula, such as No Women No Play, are actively promoting Saudi Arabian women’s participation in physical activity based on their belief that “the practice of sport is a human right.” Even so, the supporters of such organizations represent a small minority of the Saudi Arabian population. Changing the mindset of Saudi Arabians regarding female participation in sports will not be an easy task, nor one that can be accomplished over a matter of years or even decades. Yet, this is the only way to ensure the “gender equity” the IOC hopes for; gender equity is not achieved by granting two privileged women the right to compete in the Olympics, but rather by ensuring all women have the opportunity to do so if they wish.
London 2012 may have been the first year where women from all nations were sent to compete, but it was a forced and artificial first that is far from the ideals of gender equity espoused by the International Olympic Committee and the international media.
Undoubtedly, women in sports have come very far from the first modern Olympics in 1896 when the founder of the International Olympic Committee, Pierre de Coubertin, banned women from the Games on the basis that their inclusion would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect.” But there is still a long road ahead before any Olympic Games can be truly credited with being the first to not discriminate between men and women on any basis. If the International Olympic Committee wants to ensure that the Year of the Woman does not simply remain as tokenism, it should stop celebrating this hollow victory and instead take feasible steps to guarantee that countries such as Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia produce properly trained and qualified female athletes who earn their position on the biggest sporting stage in the world.