China is getting lots of bad press as the Olympics draw closer, and rightfully so in many cases. The Games were expected to accelerate improvements in human rights and press freedom in Asia’s No. 2 economy. Amnesty International says a preoccupation with security and stability in the run-up to the August 8 opening is damaging China’s record.
Yes, China has come a long way in recent years—just not nearly far enough. And yet, when it comes to the Beijing Olympics, some of the criticism aimed at China should be directed elsewhere: the International Olympic Committee. Women demonstrate why.
The IOC’s charter states that “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on the grounds of race, religion, politics, sex or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement.” Why is it, then, that nations are allowed to participate without female athletes?
“The slogan for the Olympics is ‘One World, One Dream,’” says Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington. “This dream, however, won’t be realized by women in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries that ban women from sports domestically and internationally.”
Some argue this is a good news story. The number of all-male teams has been declining. According to a recent Institute for Gulf Affairs report, 35 all-male Olympic teams competed in Barcelona in 1992 compared with 26 in Atlanta in 1996, 10 in Sydney in 2000 and half that number in Athens in 2004.
“We are aware of this problem, but we believe things are moving in the right direction,” says IOC spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau.
In 2004, 40.7% of Olympians were women compared with 38.2% in 2000. “The IOC’s hope,” Moreau says, “is that the trend continues upwards in Beijing in 2008.”
For some countries, clothing mandated by religious and cultural views confines women to certain Olympic events. In recent Games, for example, Iranian women competed in pistol- and rifle-shooting events. Others, such as the United Arab Emirates, are breaking the gender barrier for the first time in Beijing.
The question is whether the IOC should continue ignoring its own charter to avoid controversy. Should nations with men-only teams, including Brunei and Saudi Arabia, be welcome in Beijing next month or London in 2012?
For al-Ahmed, who has been lobbying the US Congress to speak out on the issue, the answer is an emphatic “no”.
“The Olympic Committee is failing to adhere to its own standards,” he says, adding that the Olympic movements in democratic nations should “develop a zero-tolerance policy”.
The Women’s Sports Foundation, founded in 1974 by tennis great Billie Jean King, also has been calling on the IOC to screen member countries for gender discrimination. The East Meadow, New York-based group favours the suspension of violators.
Ten days before the Beijing Games, the focus is on other issues, such as China’s bad air. The term “Genocide Olympics” lost traction after the devastating 12 May earthquake in China’s Sichuan province. The emphasis now is on concerns that this will be the “No Fun Olympics” as a security crackdown sweeps Beijing.
The aim is to maintain harmony and preserve the “Olympic spirit.” As China’s Olympic torch relay was disrupted around the globe, the IOC said protesters were tarnishing the Games’ spirit.
There are many ways the IOC is doing that on its own. One is how it failed to pressure China to improve human rights and allow free-press coverage. Another is how the games have become less about universal brotherhood, athleticism, grace and sportsmanship than money.
The spirit that the IOC talks about has been lost in crass commercialism.
Addressing the plight of women is an obvious first step toward getting the Olympic movement back on course.
“The IOC strives to ensure the Olympic Games and the Olympic Movement are universal and non-discriminatory, in line with our values of respect, friendship and excellence,” Moreau says.
Yet it would be nice if those female-athlete montages that often feature Helen Reddy’s 1970s tune “I am Woman” didn’t come with a mental asterisk that all weren’t free to compete.
One should never exaggerate the importance of a bunch of sporting events. Yet women’s participation in sports is also a reflection of the female gender’s role in the world at large. If the IOC is to be taken seriously about the empowering, uplifting and egalitarian nature of the games, it should crack down on nations that so overtly violate its ideals.
“On this very key issue of women,” says al-Ahmed, “it’s time for the IOC, and the world, to say enough is enough.”
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