It's a given that history is made at the Olympic games, but the 2012 London Olympics were memorable even before the flame was lit at the opening ceremonies. That's because for the first time in Olympic history, women were represented on every country's Olympic team. The three nations that had never been represented by female athletes -- Brunei, Qatar, and longtime holdout Saudi Arabia -- each have women competing for the gold in London.
Whether or not any of them have even a remote chance of winning is another story. Their presence, while heartwarming and widely touted as an advance for international women's rights, is in essence window dressing. It offers a feel-good moment that will not necessarily lead to lasting change.
Two issues make this "2012 Olympics Year of the Woman" more a PR stunt than a milestone in women's sports. One has to do with the reduction of standards to include underqualified competitors, and the other is the fact that at least one country represented by women athletes bans women from participating in sports.
Unqualified "Wild Card" Olympians
The former issue isn't the most controversial one, but it speaks to the lengths the International Olympic Committee (IOC) must go to include women from every nation. Maziah Mahusin, a hurdler from Brunei who is that country's first and only female Olympian, may be a skilled athlete but her best time for the 400 meter hurdle is 10 seconds off the Olympic qualifying time. Allowing her to compete will not diminish the competition level overall -- after all, she's just one woman -- but it is a step that some may argue isn't entirely fair. She'c competing not because she qualified, but because she has received a special dispensation because of her status as Brunei's first woman Olympian.
Similar exceptions have been made for the three women representing Quatar, the first women ever to be on that country's Olympic team. Shooter Bahiya Al-Hamad, swimmer Nada Arkaji and sprinter Noor al-Malki all were given wild cards and will be competing despite not qualifying for the Olympics. Unlike hurdler Mahusin, however, Al-Hamad only missed qualifying by half a point.
The eagerness the IOC has shown in ensuring that every country is represented by a female Olympian is problematic. There's a tremendous difference in bending the rules for a woman who misses qualifying by 10 seconds as compared to half a second. Yet even half a second puts us on a slippery slope.
Bringing women to London under these circumstances in order to establish the 2012 Olympics as a milestone in women's history and international women's rights is disingenuous. It's a first, but only because we tampered with the rules to force the outcome we wanted. Is this truly consistent with the Olympic spirit?
Competing While Banned
A much more significant issue is represented by the participation of two female athletes from Saudi Arabia, a country that bans women's athletic events and sports clubs and even prohibits any form of physical education in girls' schools.
Buckling under intense pressure by the IOC and human rights groups to allow women athletes on Saudi Arabia's Olympic team, the country is including two first-time Olympians, runner Sarah Attar and judo athlete Wodjan Shahrkhani. Yet the women are little more than a false front.
Attar has spent very little time in Saudi Arabia and was raised in Escondido, California where she ran cross country for her high school team. She was able to join the Saudi team as she holds dual American and Saudi citizenship.
While Shahrkhani lives in Saudi Arabia, she has trained primarily at home with her father, a coach and international referee in judo, and has never publicly competed.
As the Associated Press reported, there's a disconnect between the image of the female athlete Attar puts forth and the reality of the Saudi Arabian woman who would be breaking the law if she followed the Olympian's lead:
Attar has not been subjected to the restrictions that apply to women in Saudi Arabia. In a photo on the website of her high school team, she appears in shorts and a sleeveless top.
In the kingdom, women can be punished by the religious police for showing their hair in public. They could be imprisoned under Islamic law if they dared slip out of the house in sweatpants and a shirt for a morning jog.
Like their peers in Brunei and Qatar, both women are competing due to allowances made by the IOC "based on the quality of the athletes" noted IOC chief Jacques Rogge. However, a third possible female Saudi Olympian who garnered a great deal of attention, Dalma Rushdi Malhas, was blocked from competing as a show-jumper by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI). The FEI, which oversees all Olympic equestrian events, released a statement that Malhas had not met the minimum standards to undertake the Olympic riding course. Like Attar, Malhas does not live in Saudi Arabia; her family lives in France and Malhas has spent much of the past decade in Italy training for competition.
Although the 2012 Olympics are being held in London, the female Saudi Olympians are expected to adhere to Saudi laws regarding how they comport themselves. The Los Angeles Times notes:
Saudi Arabia has also cautioned its female Olympians to dress modestly, not mix with men and stay with a male guardian during the games, reflecting strict rules in the highly religious country, where women are barred from driving and required to get male permission to work, study or travel.
These are not indications of a nation embracing the opportunity to open the doors to women athletes. Clearly Saudi Arabia is "going along to get along." By putting women on their Olympic delegation, they simply want to deflect criticism and have no intention of advancing the basic rights of women under their rule. According to the LA Times, "Religious leaders have condemned sports as 'steps of the devil' that will lead women to immorality." They may be willing to risk a couple of women to the temptations of immorality in order to appease the IOC and human rights groups. But for the many women back home, after the Olympic flame is extinguished in London, any light of hope that may have burned briefly will also go out.
Alpert, Emily. "An Olympic first: Female athletes competing for every country." LATimes.com. 21 July 2012.
Alpert, Emily. "Saudi Arabia will allow female Olympians but barriers remain." LATimes.com. 25 July 2012.
Cuckson, Pippa. "London 2012 Olympics: Saudi Arabia allow female athletes but show jumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas not qualified." Telegraph.co.uk. 26 July 2012.
Johnston, Patrick. "Dream comes true for Brunei's first female Olympian." UK.Reuters.com. 6 July 2012.
Maktabi, Rima and Jon Jensen. "Qatar's first female Olympians on target to make history." CNN.com. 7 May 2012.
Moss, Stephen. "Saudi showjumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas to miss Olympics." Guardian.co.uk. 25 July 2012.
Surk, Barbara. "2 Saudi women walk different paths to Olympics." Associated Press at MiamiHerald.com. 25 July 2012.
"Women at the Olympics - inspiring change or token gestures?" Channel4.com. 25 July 2012.