March, 25, 2012 (The New York Times)
Are sports a human right? Is it a right to head out the door in running shoes or bare feet and work up a sweat; a right to shoot on goal or drive to the basket in pursuit of personal fitness, fulfillment and, lest one forget, fun?
The answer in much of the world appears to be a resounding “yes.” The health benefits of exercise are clear, even if professional sport can take a good thing too far and break down bodies instead.
There are, of course, countries and communities where sports are a luxury, not a given; where the daily quest to survive takes precedence over balls and games.
Then there are the places, fewer and fewer, where sports remain a given only for men.
Saudi Arabia, a deeply conservative Islamic monarchy, is the most prominent holdout, which is causing quite a stir in this Olympic year. Human Rights Watch released a scathing report last month and called for the International Olympic Committee to force the issue by threatening sanctions.
The I.O.C. chose more subtle diplomacy, but the stir still seems to have contributed to change — both symbolic and perhaps more substantive — as Saudi officials, after meetings with the I.O.C., are preparing to name their country’s first female Olympian (or perhaps Olympians).
Most likely, she will compete in track and field, which has universality slots available that require no elite-level qualifying standard. Elite would be quite a stretch for Saudi women at this stage.
They lack physical education classes in public schools, lack an established competitive structure and, despite rising obesity rates, lack a mainstream culture that encourages women to exercise because of fears in some sectors that sports are a slippery slope to immoral behavior.
“As far as we know, Saudi Arabia is indeed the only country where discrimination against women in sports is so systematic,” said Christoph Wilcke, principal author of the Human Rights Watch report. “There are poor countries in the world that don’t have the means. Saudi Arabia is not one of them.”
Gender balance is no guarantee of sporting virtue. East Germany’s women won championships and Olympic medals in abundance during the 1970s and 1980s but did so, as it turned out, with the help of a state-sponsored doping program that has left bitterness and health concerns in its wake.
But the I.O.C. seems rightly ever more committed to the idea that its Games should put men and women on equal footing. This is quite a turnabout for an organization that was founded in 1894 and did not name its first female members until 1981, under the leadership of Juan Antonio Samaranch.
“Like many other organizations throughout the world, the I.O.C. was slow to recognize the importance of gender equality,” the current I.O.C. president, Jacques Rogge, wrote in an opinion piece the committee released this month. “Even so, we were ahead of our times by some measures. We opened doors for women long before most regions of the world accepted the idea of gender equality.”
The I.O.C. still has only 20 women among its 106 members, but female members have been added at a rapid pace since 2006, and women are taking on increasingly prominent roles. Nawal el-Moutawakel, the 1984 Olympic hurdles champion from Morocco, is in charge of the oversight committee for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro after having headed the evaluation committees that examined candidates for the 2012 and 2016 Games.
Moutawakel, a potential successor to Rogge, remains a symbolic figure herself. She is the first woman from an Arab or predominantly Muslim country to win an Olympic title. Though she has lobbied for change in the Muslim world’s attitudes toward female athletes, she has avoided direct confrontation since her early support for a protest group, then called “Atlanta Plus,” that was pushing hard for nations to include female athletes in their teams at the 1996 Games.
“When we brutalize things, brutalize people, the wound is very difficult to heal,” Moutawakel told me in 1996. “These people who come from these countries never imposed on the Occidental athletes to wear the veil when they run. Why should the Occidental world impose that they wear shorts to run?”
In 1996, 26 nations sent only male athletes to the Olympics. In 2008, only three nations took that approach, and it looks likely to hit zero in London. A more aggressive I.O.C. tack might have accelerated that, but it also could have created a cultural backlash in the Muslim world. And there is no questioning the healthy trend.
The I.O.C. has also drawn criticism for dropping softball, a women’s sport, from the Games after 2008. But there has been undeniably steady growth in female participation at the Games. Women made up 20.7 percent of the athlete pool at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, 34 percent in 1992 in Barcelona and 42.4 percent in 2008 in Beijing.
Rogge expects the percentage to increase again this year in London, where women’s boxing will make its Olympic debut. It will be the first Summer Games where women will compete in all the same sports as the men.
“While such parity is an important achievement, it should not be cause for complacency,” Rogge wrote. “Far too many women and girls continue to be denied opportunities to experience the joys and benefits of sports.”
Rogge could have phrased that differently, of course. He could have written that far too many women and girls continue to be denied the right to experience the joys and benefits of sports.
Picture credit: Ricardo Moraes/Associated Press