What if I told you that the most influential athletes at the 2012 Summer Olympics would likely fail to medal?
The above is no longer just a question, but a reality in this year’s games. For the first time, Brunei, Qatar and, most notably, Saudi Arabia are sending female athletes to the Olympics. Qatar is even going a step further by having female sharp shooter, Bahiya al-Hamad, carry the flag in the opening ceremony.
This is truly a milestone for Muslim women in the Middle East. The traditions and beliefs of the region have kept many women from participating in sports for years, a fact that Saudi runner Sarah Attar hopes to change (via AP):
It's a huge honor, and I hope that it can really make some big strides for women over there to get more involved in sport.
Attar and the other female athletes have achieved the first step, which was participation. However, the goal seems to be consistent competitiveness; that is still a far-off notion. Many of the Muslim women competing this year failed to qualify for the Olympics through traditional means and were only allowed to participate due to their status as being the first from their country.
Once you have digested that fact, you come to a depressing realization. There are only three scenarios for the 2016 Olympics.
First, these countries develop an infrastructure for women’s sports and find and train up women athletes to world class status by 2016.
Second, the Olympic Committee continues to allow women from the traditionally male-dominated countries in the region to participate based solely on the cultural significance.
Finally, one or more the countries sending women athletes for the first time in 2012 will fail to send them for a second time in 2016.
At first glance, the latter seems to be the most likely scenario. However, in the spirit of what these women are trying to accomplish, let’s examine the first one.
What is trying to be accomplished is not without precedent. Widespread participation in women’s sports is something that has only recently been accepted in many other countries. Almost every country has its own pivotal moment in women’s sports history. Additionally, racial barriers have been broken across many sports in many different countries.
The main obstacle is the fact that world class athletes don’t grow on trees. They also tend to be rather difficult to discover when you prohibit them from participating in sports; such is the case in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia bans athletic activity in most girl schools and often prohibits women’s athletic events. Teams do exist, but they are underground. Women are publicly denigrated if they chose to participate.
All this isn’t to say that women’s athletics in the Middle East is a lost cause, but rather to point out that the battle has just begun. This situation will not change overnight. If these women’s contributions are ever to extend past the category of simply a neat story, then there is still major work to be done.
Brunei is unlikely to ever be an athletic power. They usually send no more than two athletes and often fail to compete all together.
Qatar has sought to become a major sports power in both men’s and women’s athletics. They have recently overhauled efforts for women sports.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah has made considerable efforts to reform the country in many ways, but he faces an uphill battle against the country’s conservative leadership. Perhaps with his efforts, and the efforts of his country’s first two female Olympians, his country can take another giant step towards equality...at least on the playing field.