London: Women have been in sharp focus in this Olympics—and not only because of the shenanigans of the “mysterious Lady In Red" who sneaked into the main arena with the Indian contingent during the opening ceremony.

photoUsain Bolt, Roger Federer and Michael Phelps are much-touted in these Games, but where sporting excellence is concerned, there are women to match these men: Russian Pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayva, British swimmer Rebecca Adlington, American tennis ace Serena Williams to name just a few—and of course, a deluge of Chinese athletes across disciplines.

But a salient feature of these Games is that all the 205 countries participating here have women athletes—including traditional “stonewallers" Saudi Arabia. While Saudi Arabian men have been part of the Olympics for decades, women had been banned because of religio-cultural reasons. That glass ceiling has now been broken with Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim representing the country in judo and Sarah Attar in the 800m run.

Neither of these athletes—along with some from Brunei and Qatar—had technically qualified. But the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had been cajoling these countries to send women athletes and make the London Games truly inclusive. As Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said in his address at the opening ceremony, this was perhaps the biggest step taken in sport towards gender equality.

Interestingly, women participation in the Olympics has taken a particularly tortuous route. There were no women athletes in the first modern Games in 1896, and only a few competed from the second in 1900, largely in tennis.

Unbelievable as it may seem, women were, in fact, ostracized where the Olympics is concerned. Even Baron Pierre de Coubertin, whose vision revived the Olympic movement in 1896, believed that their inclusion would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect".

Not till the 1928 Olympics were women allowed in track and field events. Since then, their number has grown—and so rapidly in the last four Games that they now form 40% of the 10,500 athletes at London this year.

Indeed, women athletes outnumber the men in the US contingent, and only a whit behind in the Chinese squad. This does not settle the argument about which political ideology is better, of course, but shows that women are no less invaluable in winning pride, glory and medals.

For the most though women enjoyed only second class status in sports in most countries. Among these, Islamic countries have been even slower in empowering them in sport with ultra conservative Arab countries making them irrelevant by banning them till now for theological and cultural reasons.

This has meant that only a few women from these nations can measure up to international standards; and even if they did, were not participants at events like the Olympics. In Athens 2004, for instance, while women formed 39% of the total athletes, from Islamic countries they accounted for only 9%.

photoThis found clear expression in the medals tallies of these countries. At Athens, 57 Islamic countries participated but could win only 47 medals (13 gold)—way below that of leading single nations like China, the US, Russia, etc. This, despite the relatively high per capita income, considered a crucial ingredient in the development of sports.

It is not just Islamic countries that have been slow. India, for instance, remains a laggard too: to a great extent because of low income/poverty, but equally so because of social constraints and taboos that deprive the girl child of school and sports activities, early marriage et al.

Revealingly though, India’s prowess in sport in the past couple of decades has come through women even though none has won an Olympic gold medal as yet. But their performance at the Asian and Commonwealth levels has been more impressive than that of men.

It is almost a cliche to say that sports can provide the upliftment for women in countries that have been slow in giving them rights and opportunities, but the Olympics medals tally does tell a pertinent story.

Ayaz Memon writes a fortnightly column in Mint, Beyond Boundaries.

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