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?