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London 2012 Olympics 'Historic First' for Women Involved Stretching the Rules

By July 26, 2012

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Call me a party pooper, but I'm not loudly promoting the idea that the London 2012 Olympics represents "The Year of the Woman."

Yes, Olympic history is being made with a notable first: it's the first time female athletes have been included on every country's Olympic team. But there are too many inconsistencies and attempts to make this look better than it really is for me to comfortably jump on the bandwagon and proclaim this a victory for international women's rights.

Olympic competition is all about hard work, pushing past your limits, and being the best you can be. Athletes train for years and make it (or don't) during various qualifying events which have specific cut-off points. We assume that fair play rules as these are amateur athletes whose blood, sweat and tears have paved the way for their entrance into the Olympic Stadium on the opening night of ceremonies.

So should we bend the rules a little -- or a lot -- to let the less exceptional in even if it's to send a message that we want women so badly that we are willing to expect less of them? That doesn't entirely sit well with me.

Olympic athletes should represent the best of their respective nations. Saudi Arabia, long resistant to allowing women on their Olympic teams, finally relented this year. But how do you locate Olympic-level contenders in any sport when you've outlawed women's sports and athletics in your country? Wouldn't it seem impossible to find a world-class female runner in a nation where every bit of your body must be covered, including your head, with no hair showing?

That's why Saudi Arabia is going with California teen and Pepperdine University student Sarah Attar -- born and raised in the U.S. -- whose father is Saudi Arabian. Because of him, she has dual U.S./Saudi Arabian citizenship and can represent a country she has spent very little time in. Although in all her years running at Escondido High School she's never worn a headwrap, she's doing so now in order to comply with Saudi Arabia's rules of modest dress.

By the letter of the law, she may qualify to represent Saudi Arabia, but is she truly representative of the women of that country who might love to don a pair of shorts, a tank and running shoes and hit the streets, but would be arrested within steps of their home if they appeared that way in public? Is this "fair play"?

The 2012 Olympics are paying lip service to the idea that because female athletes are now members of every nation's Olympic team, women have somehow shed the shackles of gender oppression and are playing on a level field. If that's the fantasy they want to promote for a handful of days in London, go ahead. Be my guest. But that has little to do with fair play, good sportsmanship, and honest competition.

Amateur athletes may be competing for the gold in front of the cameras. But behind the scenes, professionals have been gaming the system to create a "notable" moment in Olympic history that feels patently false. When an American teen steps in as the face of the Saudi Arabian woman athlete, how can any of us "women's rights types" be anything but cynical?

Related article: London 'Olympics 2012 - Year of the Woman' Won't Lead to Lasting Change

Comments

July 27, 2012 at 9:09 pm
(1) nellybeans says:

Hello, Can i be an even bigger party pooper and draw your attention to the fact that Nauru isn’t sending any women this year, so it is not a Historic First at all.
Granted Nauru has a population of less than 10 thousand people, so there may not even be any women who want to represent Nauru at the Olympics.

You’ve also forgotten to talk about Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani who is also representing Saudi Arabia in Judo.

July 27, 2012 at 9:09 pm
(2) nellybeans says:

Hello, Can i be an even bigger party pooper and draw your attention to the fact that Nauru isn’t sending any women this year, so it is not a Historic First at all.
Granted Nauru has a population of less than 10 thousand people, so there may not even be any women who want to represent Nauru at the Olympics.

You’ve also forgotten to talk about Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani who is also representing Saudi Arabia in Judo.

July 28, 2012 at 5:40 am
(3) womensissues says:

Nellybeans, thanks for your comment. I actually do discuss Shahrkhani in the longer article that’s linked to this blog post but didn’t mention her here. However, like Attar, her situation is not representative of the average Saudi woman. Shahrkhani was trained in judo in the privacy of her home by her father who is an expert and an international referee in the sport and she has brothers who also study judo. She could never have received this level of training in her home country had it not been for family circumstances. The mere fact that she’d come in physical contact with a male teacher would have been shocking. But at least she is Saudi born and raised, and I am less inclined to dispute her status as a legitimate female Olympian from her home country.

July 30, 2012 at 4:39 am
(4) Liat Karpel Gurwicz says:

I couldn’t agree more! Check out the stats for women athletes at the London 2012 Games: http://wp.me/p2z2yi-25

August 30, 2012 at 3:47 am
(5) ugg says:

Thanks for sharing your thoughts about London 2012 Olympics ‘Historic First’ for Women Involved Stretching the Rules. Regards

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