Female athletes in race for rights

The right to run: Noor al-Malki will become Qatar’s first female Olympic athlete. (Asama Faisal, AP)

The right to run: Noor al-Malki will become Qatar’s first female Olympic athlete. (Asama Faisal, AP)

Even for a 17-year-old, Noor al-Malki is slight. She is just a touch over 1.52m tall and weighs a little under 45kg. That small frame shoulders a heavy burden: in July, Noor will become the first female athlete ever to compete for Qatar in the Olympics.

Her active participation should last about 13 seconds, which is how long it takes her to run the 100m.
By Olympic standards that is treacle-slow, over a second outside the qualifying mark. Qatar had to seek a special dispensation to get her on the starting blocks.

Some runners will be thinking of beating Florence Griffith-Joyner’s 1988 Olympic record of 10.62 seconds. Noor, on the other hand, is likely to finish last in her heat.

But in doing that she will break a barrier that has stood for far longer than 24 years. Ask Noor to name her heroines, and you’ll find she doesn’t have any: no Qatari female role models have come before her.

Noor’s selection is part of a concerted effort by the Qatari authorities to prove to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that, after years of discrimination, they are now willing and able to increase women’s sport in their own country and across the Middle East.

Intense summer heat
Qatar’s 2020 Olympic bid was turned down because the intense summer heat meant its Games would need to be in October rather than August. It plans to bid again for the 2024 Games, when Noor will be 29 and in her athletic prime.

Qatar is also sending a swimmer, Nada Arkaji (17), and a rifle shooter, Bahia al-Hamad (19). The three teenagers are close friends and enjoy each other’s successes. None of them really deserves a place on merit. But their presence will help London 2012 to become the first Olympics in which the split between male and female athletes is 50/50.

Only 42% of Olympians in Beijing in 2008 were women. Of 204 countries and territories represented, three did not send women on religious and cultural grounds: Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia.

Brunei’s Olympic committee has confirmed a 400m hurdler, Maziah Mahusin, as part of its 2012 team. That leaves Saudi Arabia, which is refusing to follow suit.

Prince Nawaf Faisal, head of the Saudi Olympic committee, bluntly said: “At present, we are not embracing any female Saudi participation in the Olympics or other international championships.”

Severe discrimination
Bizarrely, the Saudi position seemed to be that women were free to compete in London, but would not receive endorsement or support from their national governing body. It was a gesture towards equality, only with the caveat that anyone who took advantage of it could expect severe discrimination.

“If the IOC was looking for an official affirmation of Saudi discrimination against women in sport, the minister in charge [Faisal] just gave it,” said Human Rights Watch spokesperson Christoph Wilcke. “It is impossible to square Saudi discrimination against women with the noble values of the Olympic charter.”

The IOC’s charter may be noble, but its record is not. It was only in 1972 that the women’s 1500m was contested at the Olympics. Until that point, distances over 800m were believed to be too taxing for women.

It is no coincidence that 1972 was the final year of Avery Brundage’s presidency of the IOC. Brundage, a notorious bigot, once said: “You know, the ancient Greeks kept women out of their athletic games. They wouldn’t even let them on the sidelines. ”

Since then, barriers have been slowly falling. Iran sent its first female athlete, the rifle shooter Lida Fariman, to the 1996 Games. Afghanistan followed in 2004, when Robina Muqimyar ran in the 100m.

A good solution
Today, Saudi Arabia stands alone. The IOC says it has met a Saudi delegation to discuss the situation, but does not seem to have made much progress.

“It’s not an easy situation,” said the IOC president, Jacques Rogge. “There is a commitment. We’re working steadily with them to find a good solution.”

Rogge refused to discuss whether the IOC would impose penalties on Saudi Arabia if the kingdom stood its ground, which seems tantamount to an admission that it would not. The Saudis’ decision on sending female athletes would affect any future Qatari Olympics, which would be sold as a bid on behalf of the entire Middle East. “It is not a single effort of Qatar,” said Tamim bin Hamad, president of Qatar’s Olympic committee, “but one of a region whose population will reach 700million people by 2020.”

Qatar’s 2020 bid document laid out aspirations including the desire to “enhance and grow women’s sport across the Arab world”, and to build “bridges of hope and understanding between the Middle East and the international community”.

“We were not happy when the Saudis said that they would not send women athletes,” said Noora al-Mannai, the chief executive of Qatar’s bid committee. Mannai believes Qatar can help to foster change across the border in Saudi Arabia. “If Qatar does it, it will be easier for others. It is always the case with change – people find it difficult at first, but they will start seeing changes in our country and then countries that have similar religions, similar traditions, will change as well.”

Entirely banned
In Saudi Arabia, women’s sport is almost entirely banned. Girls do not do physical education at school, and there are no state programmes that support competitive female sports. “Female sports activity has not existed,” said Prince Faisal, “and there is no move in this regard.”

He is not quite right. Some Saudi women play in underground leagues. Reema Abdullah, who founded Saudi Arabia’s first female football club in 2006, said: “Nobody is saying completely ‘no’ to us. As long as there are no men around and our clothes are properly Islamic, there should be no problem.”

Many middle-class women play sport at private, segregated gyms, often attached to universities. “In Saudi Arabia there are people that want it,” said Mannai. “One of the most important voices who endorsed our bid is the wife of Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, who is a very active woman in social development. Others will close their ears – they don’t want to listen, don’t want to see. But one day they will hear; one day they will see.”

Qatar has undergone a similar shift. “When I started working 10 years ago, it was very difficult for girls to work in an open environment and meet with men,” Mannai said. “Today we have an open environment, women are working with men, so exercising together is not an issue. Ten years ago, her highness Sheikha Mouzah [the second of the emir’s three wives] played a very big role in initiating the change. Now we are not at the beginning; we have already passed a lot of challenges.”

Noor, the youngest of six brothers and six sisters, is part of the first generation of girls to grow up with more chances to play sport.

A personal choice
“My parents always told me sports are an area where you can develop a goal and work towards and achieve that goal,” she said. “So they encouraged me to take that opportunity.”
Mannai says that, for girls in Qatar, deciding to compete in sport is “a personal choice, but a family for sure will be part of it. There are a lot of sports that the family would refuse to let their girls participate in because of what they have to wear.”

Noor’s family was sporty: her brothers played football, her sisters handball. She started sprinting in school competitions in 2008, and was spotted by the national coach, who invited her to train at Qatar’s high-performance centre for women’s sport, founded in 2007. “He showed me that there is a way to warm up, a way to start and a way to stop. He showed me the ABCs of sprinting.”

She is one of 50 athletes who train there. “Having a dedicated centre tells girls like me that we have done a good job and we deserve to have special treatment,” she said. “It gives us hope and motivation.” Noor said many people are surprised when they find out what she does. “Traditionally, sport is not for women in an area like this. It is not common to see a female champion.”

That is changing. In 2011, 3000 Qatari girls competed in the country’s school Olympic programme.

Before the recent Diamond League athletics meet in Doha, which attracted the likes of Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and her Jamaican teammate Veronica Campbell-Brown, a girls’ 100m race was held. Noor won, with a new personal best of 12.70 seconds – about two seconds slower than Fraser-Pryce.

But Noor is not in it for a medal. Her aims are less tangible, more ambitious. “I could not believe it when they told me I was going to the Olympics,” she said. “It was a shock, but it was also a source of immense happiness and pride. It is the dream of every athlete in Qatar and I will be taking that with me. I am nervous, but I try to overcome that by focusing on the fact that I am going for a specific reason, which is to represent Qatari women, and to encourage more women to get into sport.

“I want to show people that Qatari women take sport seriously … I want the world to understand that sports is something where you can show your talent. Whether you are a boy or a girl, if you don’t practise sport then there is something missing in your life.” – © Guardian News & Media 2012

Rain won’t spoil the party
Here’s a thought. What if, when the impeccably planned Olympics start on July 27, the weather doesn’t co-operate? Some long-range forecasts are encouraging, and London has fewer rainy days in July than in any other month, but isn’t it possible that high summer in England could be as wet and dreary, frankly, as it usually is?

It rained right through many of the Olympic test events. It rained ferociously more or less throughout Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee weekend. It even rained in Athens during the torch-lighting. And the ever-jovial Danny Boyle, director of the opening ceremony, has promised that synthetic rainclouds will be included “just in case it doesn’t rain”.
The position at the London organising committee is simple: rain will not stop play.

“We’re a fairly sturdy lot,” a spokesperson says. “Beach volleyball will continue in the rain, archery will continue in the rain – just like Beijing, where there were a number of events that continued in the rain.” Indeed, lightning will be needed to stop most things.

A few events, such as the BMX and tennis competitions, might be delayed by rain, but the organisers are confident they could handle the rescheduling.

So, for the record, if it does not stop raining from the moment the opening ceremony begins until the moment the Games are supposed to end, will everything still be completed? “Yes,” they say.

Right conditions
Continuing is not thriving, however. Outdoor competitors are used to rain, but they often perform worse in it. Usain Bolt, for one, has registered some early excuses. “He’d have to have the right conditions [to run 100m in less than 9.5 seconds],” says his coach Glen Mills, “and I’m not sure London is going to be kind.”

Broadly speaking, a wet Olympics will see fewer records, but this varies by event. “For the endurance athletes, there could be an advantage in that it can help to keep them cool,” said Peter Stanley, who coached Jonathan Edwards to a gold medal, and is now a mentor at England Athletics. “For the throwers, however, turning quickly in a circle that is slippery is more difficult …”

In truth, the people who would suffer most in a wet Olympics are probably the spectators. Yes, the toilets at the velodrome and the handball arena (which harvest rainwater) will be flushing well. But the roof at the Olympic stadium covers only two-thirds of the seats, and there is no roof at all on the Riverbank Arena in Hackney, east London, where the hockey will be played, none over any of the seats at the beach volleyball, the BMX track, the equestrian events, or on the Mall in central London for the road cycling. So if you’ve got tickets for one of those, bring a raincoat. – Leo Benedictus © Guardian News & Media 2012

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