The Olympics are set to open July 27 in London. Special preparations are being made throughout the urban center, and the city will soon be swamped with thousands of competitors and spectators eager to watch the games. Among those excited for the beginning of the athletic tradition is Noor al-Malki, an athlete from Qatar.
Noor runs the 100-meter dash and will be the first female athlete to represent Qatar in the Olympics. The Guardian reports that the athlete runs the sprint distance in just under 13 seconds, which is not a time that will place Noor anywhere near winning a medal, compared with record times under 11 seconds. Instead, the goal of the Qatar government and Noor herself is to get the country on the map and to stand for Muslim women playing sports on the international stage. She will be joined by two other athletes, Nada Arkaji, a swimmer, and Bahia al-Hamad, a rifle shooter.
Qatar’s vision and intiative took some wrangling. They had to convince the Olympic officials to include Noor in order to open up the stage for Qatari representation. The stance taken by Qatar also differs sharply from Saudi Arabia, which has denied women the space to play Olympic sports. Many commentators had expected Saudi Arabia to follow Qatar’s example in sending female athletes to the Olympics this year, but the head of the Saudi Olympic games committee stated, “At present, we are not embracing any female Saudi participation in the Olympics or other international championships.”
In the 2008 summer Olympics held in Beijing, Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia were the only three countries that failed to send female athletes to compete. Both Qatar and Brunei are sending contestants this year. Human Rights Watch has noted that Saudi Arabia does not allow women to play most sports, even within the confines of schools.
Women have faced an uphill battle throughout the history of the Olympic games in every country. Female athletes started to compete in the Paris Olympics in 1900 on a limited basis. Women’s weightlifting was not even on the Olypmic docket until 2000 when it made its debut. Sprint running, like the sport Noor competes in, was banned for women between 1928 and 1960 because women were considered too feeble to complete the 800-meter sprint.
Even countries which have been sending women to the Olympic games for a number of years, such as India, are only now sending new female athletes to compete for the first time in certain sports. For example, Geeta Phogat is the first Indian female athlete in wrestling to qualify for the Olympics.
Her athletic prowess and abilities are often considered unfeminine in her local community. Phogat has stated that many community members “said nobody will marry us because we would have disfigured ears,” the Times of India reports.
Phogat and Noor al-Malki are breaking traditional molds of femininity which include marriage and children at a relatively young age. They are also breaking Olympic traditions which have been weighted against female athletes throughout the decades. Avery Brundage, a well-known president of the IOC in the 1950s and 60s allowed that women could do sports “of all kinds” but only under “the proper supervision.” This type of thinking has clearly affected women’s participation and chances in the Olympic Games, even in recent years.
Admittedly, many women athletes have become celebrated icons in Olympic events. Just consider the love and support gymnast Shawn Johnson enjoyed during the 2008 Olympics. However, women continue to be sidelined in many sports outside of the gymnastics arena, a sport that is often stereotypically associated with feminine charm and ability. It appears that pressure and expectations of the inclusion of women in Olympic events helped to bring about changes in Qatar and Brunei. Human Rights Watch hopes to pressure Saudi Arabia to reconsider its position on female sports participation for future events, but this year it looks as though the Saudi women will have no representatives.
Photo Credit: Smithsonian