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By Elizabeth Culliford
“Impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect.” This is the founder of the modern Olympic Games on women’s sport; a man who would be turning in his grave at the idea of London 2012 as ‘The Year of the Woman’.
But this is not a dead opinion; instead it is raging in countries like Saudi Arabia where ‘Prostitutes of the Olympics’ has become a Twitter hashtag about their female athletes. London 2012 may be backing plenty of poster girls but the debate continues over whether this will lead to any lasting change or whether it is a PR stunt which feels patently false.
For the first time, there are more women on the U.S and Russian teams than men and the most pregnant athlete to compete in an Olympics will shoot while being due to give birth any day now. But the headline news is that for the first time in Olympic history every single one of the 205 countries will have a woman competing on its team, including longtime hold-out Saudi Arabia, as well as Brunei and Qatar.
It has been a long road and one where one step taken forward can lead to two steps back. In 1928 the women’s 800m was banned after the very first race due to the apparent exhaustion of the women; the ever accurate Daily Mail affirmed that women who raced longer than 200m age prematurely and the New York Evening Post described “11 wretched women, five of whom dropped out before the finish, while five collapsed after reaching the tape”, an account which footage shows to be blatant lies. Women were not allowed to race such distances again until 1960. There is a lengthy track of history full of stories about women hiding and illegally jumping out into races to prove their worth, of the ‘Flying Housewife’ and of Billie King beating Bobby Riggs in the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ after he came out of retirement trying to show that women’s tennis was inferior.
But two issues have been raised by those who feel that this milestone is tainted by issues brushed over in all the ‘here come the girls’ hype. One problem is the positive discrimination shown to these athletes where the IOC has allowed the reduction of standards to include underqualified competitors. Maziah Mahusin, the first female hurdler from Brunei, has a best time that is 10 seconds off the Olympic qualifying time. Similar exceptions have been made for the women representing Qatar; shooter Bahiya Al-Hamad, swimmer Nada Arkaji and sprinter Noor al-Malki were all given universality ‘wild cards’.
Some have even argued that it is humiliating for these women to be put into the Games ‘like sacrificial lambs’ to keep the IOC happy. This seems ridiculous. True, teenage 400m runner Maziah Mahusin from Brunei was the last to finish in heat six of the women’s 400m, more than eight seconds behind the winner, and when blue belt Saudi Arabian Wojdan Shakerhani donned a black one as Olympic uniform she was dumped on her back after less than a minute and a half of judo. But Melissa Mojica, the woman who put her on the floor, said ‘I did not feel pity for her, I felt a lot of respect’. These are trailblazing women who are the first however far behind the other competitors they end up.
Mainly it has been argued that special dispensations go against the spirit of fairness in the Olympics. It is true that positive discrimination can be unhelpful – firstly, it is still discrimination which suggests that the minority difference is of enduring importance, secondly, most quotas that make things easier for women are damaging because it sustains the idea that they aren’t capable of great things without an extra leg up and thirdly, it also diminishes the achievement of women who have reached those heights.
However, while the idea of ‘levelling the playing field’ can often be misguided, here it is about getting people even onto the playing field. The Olympics may be about fairness but it is not fair that Tahmina Kohistani, the only Afghan female athlete, has to train at Kabul Stadium where public hangings have taken place, where nails are sticking up and bullet holes linger in the track. It isn’t fair that on the way to training a taxi driver told her to get out of his car because he thought she should be at home. It is not fair that sport is banned for women in Saudi Arabia. If the Olympics are about fairness then surely it is more important to address these injustices than to make sure a load of people can run in a circle as fast as each other.
The hypocrisy of the whole thing is the sorest point, as at least one country now represented by female athletes still bans women’s sport. The Olympics do give a rose-tinted view of the world where Sarah Attar, an athlete who has been raised not in Saudi Arabia, but in California, and who has never worn a headscarf in her life before the Games, is a representative of a country that even bans P.E in girls’ schools. There is a huge disparity between these competitors and the reality of Saudi Arabian women who can only watch from the sidelines, but the point is that these women now have something to watch. The point is that what they can watch is some encouragement from the IOC, support from a governing body that says the world wants to see them perform.
It is true that Saudi Arabia only buckled under intense pressure and the threat of being banned from the Games altogether and it is true that religious leaders still condemn female sport as ‘steps to the devil’. But if Saudi Arabia is fine with a couple of women ‘stepping to the devil’ then the government’s stance is somewhat undermined. No negativity in the press can detract from the fact that if the Olympics have the power to force countries to engage in the debate on women’s rights and to give young girls in these countries some heroines then that sounds like a pretty good thing.
This week, topless protesters from feminist organisation Femen were arrested outside in front of City Hall and argued on their Facebook page that “if the IOC keeps flirting with radical Islam, new Olympic disciplines, such as stoning or speed raping will be added to the competition”. In fact, far from stepping away from some parts of the world, the Olympics need to step up and act as a bridge between different cultures.
London 2012 is not perfect; I doubt most men could name a member of the GB beach volleyball team despite being very happy to be given seats there in the ticket lottery and the Japanese women’s soccer world champions travelled to the Games in economy while the men, who weren’t even expected to medal, stretched out in first class. On the 100-strong IOC there are still only 14 women.
The founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, was against women’s sport but he did have this to say about his beloved Games: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”
So there it is then: even if these women come last, and even if there is still a marathon of fighting needed to make real change, they have won something simply by being there at all.