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The opening of the 2012 Olympics in London on Friday were definitely a spectacle to behold. Perhaps the show was enough to divert attention from the gaffes and muddles reported by the media – such as the South Korean flag being displayed as the North Korean women’s football team were about to take to the field.
What is perhaps most memorable about these Games is that they are the first to which every competing nation has sent a female participant. At the last Games, held in Beijing in 2008, neither Saudi Arabia, Qatar nor Brunei sent women as part of their Olympic teams. This has now changed. In the case of the two Saudi Arabian sportswomen – 800m runner Sarah Attar and judo competitor Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani – their participation is thanks to an invitation from the International Olympic Committee (IOC): In the words of Al-Arabiya English editor Faisal Abbas, “The two Saudi athletes are not finalists nor are they the best of their country’s sportswomen; but happened to be available, suitable and granted exceptions.”
Quoting the official Olympics website, “Sport and physical activities have been recognised as having a positive impact on health and as being a tool to eliminate socially constructed gender stereotypes.” Sometimes the Olympics aren’t about being the best. They’re about being there.
As could be expected in a country where women are banned from driving, there was a vicious backlash following the announcement. Ms Attar and Ms Shahrkhani were referred to as the “prostitutes of the Olympics” on Twitter.
It has been asked whether the inclusion of female athletes is a sign of the gradual opening of these societies or just a response to a threatened ban from the Olympics which would have affected the states’ male athletes. And for Qatar, it could also be asked whether the move is purely pragmatic in light of the country’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics.
If the female athletes had wished to compete, there was arguably always the possibility of competing as “Independent Olympic Athletes” as shown by three competitors from the Netherlands Antilles and one from South Sudan. While this may seem a little far-fetched, it was only shortly before the Games kicked off in London that Kuwait was reinstated – otherwise, as she mentions in this cute interview, swimmer Faye Sultan would have been competing as an Independent.
Another (small?) achievement worth celebrating is Josefa Idem’s – at 47 years old she’s competing for the 8th time, and is the first woman to have taken part in so many Olympics. Her appearance is also being heralded as inspirational in her adopted homeland of Italy, a country “where the image of women has gradually come to be dominated by the young leggy showgirls on Italian television. “What I’m telling women is that we can all be beautiful, and achieve high goals at any age,” Idem said.”
If you are interested in the topic, I’d suggest reading the Middle East Institute’s 2010 collection of short essays, Sports and the Middle East, which includes pieces on the development of women’s sport in Afghanistan and ‘tradition over triumph’, the story of a female Tunisian wrestler.
Foreign Policy magazine have also recently published a gallery of female athletes from the Middle East.
Competing against the sport world’s 1% (or is it more accurate to say 0.1%?) it’s maybe just a pipe dream that athletes from countries which really don’t value female sportswomen will place. But it’s a small step in the right direction and hopefully paves the way for future generations. That should be considered an Olympic achievement, and one which burns brighter than the Olympic flame.
Originally published here by the Foreign Policy Association