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Saudis claim gold for sexism

BBC 4 recently screened an inspirational documentary series on the international battle against Apartheid in South Africa. One programme detailed the successful efforts to make South Africa a pariah nation in sport.

This battle began with the exclusion of the Apartheid state from the Olympics in 1960 on the grounds that its refusal to allow black athletes on its national teams contravened the Olympic Charter which states that "any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, sex or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement."

South Africa spent three decades away from the Olympics, and proper order too. That's why it's astounding that a full half century later a nation which flouts the Olympic Charter in an equally flagrant manner is still allowed to participate in the games and hopes to be lining up in London despite, like South Africa, excluding a large section of its population from international sport.

This time round the country is Saudi Arabia and it is women rather than black people who are being discriminated against.

Last week's statement by Saudi Arabia's Olympic Committee head Prince Nawaf bin Faisal that they would "not be endorsing any female participation at the moment" has led to calls for the country to be banned from the games. Human Rights Watch, which has published a damning report on the women's sporting situation in Saudi Arabia, has observed that "the IOC's acquiescence in Saudi Arabia's systematic discrimination against women in sports frustrates the aspirations of Saudi women hoping one day to participate in the Olympic Games."

The International Olympic Committee's pussyfooting around the Saudis has been pitiful to behold. Spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau has said "the IOC does not give ultimatums nor deadlines but rather believes that a lot can be achieved through dialogue," and as recently as last month a story on the organisation's own website predicted that Saudi Arabia would include women on their team. Last week's announcement put the kibosh on that.

So much for the softly softly approach. The IOC are now attempting to broker a shabby compromise by which Saudi women may be invited to the Olympics but will not be allowed to be part of their national team. The problem with this, as pointed out by Philip Hersh of the Chicago Tribune, is that "it's just a way of turning women who are second-class sports citizens in their own country into second-class citizens at the Olympics."

Saudi Arabia's attitude towards women in the Olympics merely mirrors an appalling situation within the country. The Human Rights Watch report painted a grim picture. PE is forbidden for girls in state schools, most of the country's gyms for women were closed by the government two years ago, all of the country's officially licensed 153 sports clubs are closed to women and women are prohibited from attending sports events. Does a country like this really have a right to participate in the Olympics?

There are those who would argue that this is the Saudi way of doing things and that the outside world should not interfere. But this was exactly the argument made in favour of allowing South Africa to remain part of international sport. It didn't wash then and it won't wash now.

What about the IOC's mealy-mouthed argument that it's an organisation which works by subtle diplomacy? Well, it's simply not true. Four years ago, Iraq were booted out of the Games because of a dispute over the make-up of their national Olympic committee, something which would seem less of a sin than Saudi Arabia's continued acts of discrimination. The ban was reversed at the 11th hour but Iraq's archers, weightlifters and judo players missed the Olympics as a result.

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And 12 years ago, Afghanistan were excluded from the Sydney Olympics. Why? Because, believe it or not, of the Taliban government's discrimination against women in sport. After the Taliban had been toppled, the ban was lifted and Afghanistan's participation in the 2004 games was hailed as a great triumph of the human spirit. This, it was implied, was the kind of thing the US had been fighting for in Afghanistan. Wasn't all the bloodshed worthwhile so that the Afghans could have a taste of Western-style liberty?

Perhaps. Though I don't think we'll see Saudi Arabia being invaded any time soon. Or for that matter, Brunei or Qatar, the other two nations which refuse to allow women in the Olympics. The IOC had no problem beating up on the Taliban but the situation is different when it comes to nations on good terms with the West. In fairness to Brunei and Qatar, they have allowed female athletes to compete in regional competitions. Saudi Arabia stands on its own as a paragon of bigotry. It has no place in the Olympics.

This is not an anti-Islamic argument. The Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, allowed women to compete at the last Olympics, one of whom, Sara Khoshjamal Fekri, came within one bout of winning a medal in taekwondo. And they entered a women's football team in the qualifying competition for London which, after winning its first-round group, withdrew when the players were forbidden to wear headscarves by FIFA. Given the advance that the team's participation represented, FIFA should have been more flexible. Meanwhile, everyone bends over backwards to please the Saudis.

But let's not feel all morally superior about our Western values. After all, this weekend many of us will be following the US Masters, an event taking place at a club which refuses to admit women as members. So strongly do the good old boys of Augusta feel about this that even Ginni Rometty, the chief executive of tournament sponsors IBM, hasn't been made a member though previously all CEOs of a sponsoring company had been.

Augusta has form when it comes to discrimination as for years black people were excluded. Eventually they bowed to the changing times and admitted one in 1990. Racism, you see, wasn't acceptable anymore. On the other hand, the golfing fraternity still seem to be cool with sexism. Why?

The argument that the Augusta club should be fit to admit who they like is a bit like the one which says the Saudis should be allowed treat 'Their Women' any way they please. The real question is why the men of Augusta adopt this membership policy. And the obvious answer is because they, like their counterparts in Riyadh and Jeddah, think women are an inferior species. Words like 'medieval' get thrown around when the question of Islamic fundamentalist attitudes towards women comes up. But you don't have to go back to the Middle Ages to find similar behaviour in this country.

Back in 1934, the NACA put a women's race on one of their athletics programmes. The most powerful clergyman in Ireland, Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid, was outraged by this and led his fellow bishops in threatening a boycott of the organisation's meetings by diocesan schools unless mixed athletics were banned. He won and the threat was averted. It would be 1956 before an Irish female athlete, Maeve Kyle, competed in the Olympics. In a later interview, Kyle recalled how, when she was a member of the Irish hockey team, their skirts would be measured before a game to make sure they were the requisite four inches below the knee.

Given our own sorry history in terms of sexism in sport, and our achievement in moving beyond it, is it too much to ask that Pat Hickey and the other members of the Olympic Council of Ireland lead the way in protesting against Saudi Arabia's continued presence in the Olympics, a presence which makes a mockery of the games?

I hope it's not. But I bet it is.


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