A lot has been made this year about the fact that Saudi women were finally allowed to join the Saudi Olympic team. However, I have difficulty being excited or encouraged by this step “forward”, for many reasons.
First, I think it must be obvious to everyone that this was just a symbolic move to appease the International Olympic Committee and save Saudi Arabia (and the IOC) from embarrassment. With all the loud and strenuous calls for Saudi Arabia to be banned from these games (dating as far back as 2008), I am sure that the Saudis did not want to end up on the same page in the history books as South Africa’s apartheid governments. (South Africa was the only country ever to be banned from the Olympics.) And of course, Saudi Arabia is no patsy on the world’s economic and political stage, so it probably wouldn’t have been very strategic for the IOC (and its friends) to get into a tiff with the Saudis.
Second, I couldn’t help but smirk when I read this quote from Sarah Attar (one of the female Saudi Olympians, who by the way was born and raised in California), “… I hope that it can really make some good strides for women over there to get more involved in the sport.” Is she implying that Saudi women are currently not involved enough in sports because they don’t have the self-motivation and initiative to do so? Even if a girl or woman wanted to do exercise or play sports, where could she go? And to get to an elite level, who’s going to train her? (The other Saudi female Olympian, judo athlete Wojdan Shahrkhani, was coached by her father who is an international judo referee. She has never competed at an international level.) I don’t see how having these two women on the Saudi Olympic team is going to do anything for the participation of Saudi women in sport, unless there are major changes in the school and community/social systems in Saudi Arabia. Just earlier this month, Saudi authorities had denied permission for a women’s sports tournament to take place (no reason for the denial was given). And unfortunately, there are loud voices from within Saudi that are resorting to the internet to spread hateful messages about Saudi female athletes. Hopefully, the many voices countering these messages will continue to grow stronger and louder.
Third, before we Westerners get up on our high-horse about the backwardness of the Saudi attitude towards sports and women, let’s not forget that there’s still a long way to go in our society when it comes to attitudes about women and sport. It was only this year that all the sports in the Summer Olympics will have both men and women’s events. Even just 2 years ago at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, we heard much about the court battle to force the IOC to include women’s ski jumping (the court refused to hear the case). And there are so many other examples, in the Olympics and throughout professional and amateur sport, where the type of media focus greatly differs depending on whether the coverage is on the male or the female athletes (e.g. recent example about beach volleyball players at the London Olympics).
Hmm, progress? Seems like we could all use some.