Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Female Athletes Still Pressing for Equality

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Female Athletes Still Pressing for Equality

Article excerpt

The International Olympic Committee is steering things in the right direction, but far too many women remain unable to play sports in their home country.

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. …

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