POSTED: February 22nd 2012

JOHN GOODBODY: Pressure mounts on Saudi Arabia to include women in Olympic teams

THE JOHN GOODBODY COLUMN / An authoritative and exclusive series from Sports Features Communications

LONDON: The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has always deserved immense credit for having banned South Africa from the Games since its decision was one of the causes that the apartheid regime was dismantled 20 years ago. No South African team took part from 1960 until 1992, when the first full multi-racial team competed in Barcelona.

The struggle had been a long and hard one as the South Africans tried everything they could to maintain sporting links with the outside world, successfully for much of the time in rugby union, even agreeing as early as 1964 that they would include non-whites in Olympic teams. The problem was that the disparity in facilities, support and encouragement of the different races was so wide that few blacks could reach international standard. 

As one who first started campaigning against apartheid by demonstrating outside the South African Embassy in London in March 1960, following the Sharpeville Massacre, I was gratified when the system collapsed and I was able to watch their sportsmen and women in the Games in Barcelona –and ever since.

Note that word ‘sportswomen’ because the Olympic Movement is now heading for another issue of sporting discrimination. The recent 51-page report by the Human Rights Watch has targeted the government-imposed practices in Saudi Arabia, which denies girls the opportunity to practise physical education in state schools, the licensing of women’s gyms and the absence of female programmes by the country’s National Olympic Committee. One leading government cleric has even described women’s sports as “steps of the devil”  bringing moral corruption.  

Saudi Arabia is one of only three countries never to have sent a female athlete to the Games and, according to Human Rights Watch, the other two, Qatar and Brunei, do not bar women from competitive sports  and their women athletes have, in fact, participated in other international sporting competitions. Qatar, it says, has supported sports for women over the past decade and said that it plans to send women athletes to the London Olympics.

Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, says:”The fact that women and girls cannot train to compete clearly violates the Olympic Charter’s pledge to equality and gives the Olympic Movement itself a black eye.”  He wants the IOC to press the Saudis to start women’s sports programmes as a condition for remaining within the Olympic family. It wants more people to follow Saudi show-jumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas, a bronze medallist at the 2010 Summer Youth Olympics.

In 1999, the IOC barred Afghanistan from competing in the 2000 Olympics because the ruling Taleban discriminated against women. It has subsequently criticised the Saudis for the failure to send women to the Games but it has not made it a condition of Olympic participation that the country ends this discrimination against women in sports, believing “a lot can be achieved through dialogue.”

Indeed it can. However, the IOC should privately now be demanding some substantial action. Saudi Arabia should be warned that if things do not change in the four years to Rio de Janeiro, then its participation in those Games is in jeopardy.

In his 11 years as president, Dr. Jacques Rogge has largely steered a sensible course for the Olympic Movement, (an exception being his championing of the admission of rugby sevens to the Games). As he approaches his retirement, he should make it a point of principle to ensure that a change comes over the sporting landscape in Saudi Arabia. It happened in South Africa. Now it should happen in Saudi Arabia.

** JOHN GOODBODY covered the 2008 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 11th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001.

Keywords · John Goodbody · women in sport · IOC · Jacques Rogge

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