London 2012’s motto is “inspire a generation”. However, this has been achieved not only by the organisers’ efforts to urge young people to get involved into sports, but also by the participation of certain athletes that push boundaries and create a precedent that will certainly influence many athletes to come.
Until Beijing, all countries would send athletes, but not all the delegations would include women. After years of negotiation between the International Olympic Committee and last few countries that had never sent women to the Games, the olympic family is now complete: Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia finally agreed to send female representatives. One could argue that “sports don’t matter” and that the participation in such a “commercialised” event doesn’t really do much for the women in these countries as a whole. Allow me to disagree.
First of all, women’s visibility allows them to be considered active participants in their societies. If traditionally there is a private sphere (where women are supposed to be in charge) and a public sphere (occupied by men who are in charge of the bigger life issues), then the participation of women in public events questions such a strict division. The Olympic Games is an excellent such platform because of the IOC’s efforts for inclusiveness and the variety of competitions offered. From permitting women to participate wearing a sports hijab or an equivalent that will meet the individual sports’ requirements and health and safety rules to offering such varied events as synchronised swimming and shooting, there is something for people of all tastes and lifestyles to enjoy. At the same time, such event can bring glory to the country when a medal is won. As women’s and men’s events are treated the same way, they are considered of equal importance and follow the same medals ceremony, the glory is of the same level. Therefore, women have the opportunity to bring pride to their nation and stand next to people of the world holding their heads high.
But is competitive sports important for women? Can’t they just, you know, study and go on with their lives without indulging in activities that can be considered offensive by conservatives? First of all, an athletic body is neither feminine nor masculine. It is strong, admirable and full of potential. It radiates health and strength. Sports also allow people of different shapes and tastes to find an activity that satisfies their needs. Sports allow people – men and women – to maintain a healthy lifestyles in regards to diet, physical well-being and mental health. It also makes people understand their body better and meet its needs. Furthermore, it desexualises nakedness – a worked out body on the move can be called “sexy”, however it is not provocative. Few people with consider a young trampoline athlete as a sexy athlete while she performs shapes on air. Sports also accommodate competitiveness and offer self-confidence boosts. Therefore, a person doing sports can be a person with self-esteem and excellent physical health, that can take pride in their achievements and have learnt important life skills, such as team work and respect towards opponents. Such qualities and experiences can only have a positive effect on the person, their work and their personal relations.
Will the participation of a handful of women bring actual change to their countries? In the short term no, in the long term, maybe. Don’t forget that in the second Olympic Games in Paris, only a few women participated and the US didn’t allow its athletes to compete in sports without wearing long skirts. A 112 years later, the difference is striking, given how difficult is for social change to take root in societies. Therefore, expecting Saudi Arabia to send gymnastics athletes in the next Games is not only naive, but potentially harmful. For true change to take roots in a country, the values that it represents need to be translated in local terms and understood as essential for the well-being of the citizens, not as something “imposed by the West”. Therefore, it will take time for people to identify the values that sports promote and their compatibility with their culture and understanding of the world. Interventions from foreign bodies and organisations must be done in a respectful and tactful manner. For example, they can support people like 16-year-old Saudi judoka Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani who, despite her lack of experience, blue belt and young age, went to the Games, handled pressure with grace and said after her defeat “Unfortunately, we did not win a medal, but in the future we will and I will be a star for women’s participation”.
Inclusiveness of course should not be limited to women, but to anybody who desires to compete as an equal. The case of Oscar Pistorius comes to mind. He is not the first person with disability to participate in the Olympics. However, he is the first double-amputee, Paralympic golden medallist and record holder, who decided to fight the system to gain a spot in the 400-meter heats in London. He agreed to participate in exams that would measure the possibility of his artificial legs offering him an unfair advantage. He fought in court to be allowed to participate. He worked for years to bring down his time and qualify. And after all this emotionally and physically draining work, he went out to a packed stadium and came second in his heat, advancing to the semi-finals of London 2012 400-metre race. This is not the story of a super-human. It is a story of a man who refused to accept a restrained life, became the best in his category and then wanted to show the world that he can stand among able-bodied athletes and compete with them fairly and as an equal in a mainstream event of global coverage. This alone leaves a legacy and brings a refreshing change in the image of disability. Disability is not only the helplessness of a disabled beggar on the street. It is also the strength, handsomeness and wholesomeness of a young athlete standing tall with the help of society and his own courage. It is a positive image that shows that the only true disability is to be afraid to go out to the world and try your best.