Columns

Olympics still a particularly hard slog for women

Keeble McFarlane

Saturday, August 11, 2012    

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FOR all the politicking, preening, posturing, and pomposity displayed by the self-important people who run the Olympics; for all the crass commercialism and crushing pressure imposed on the competitors; for all the circuses-overbread considerations, the Olympics are still one helluva show! When you consider that the big nations like the US, China, Japan, the UK, Germany, Russia and the rest can produce large numbers of formidable competitors in a wide variety of sports, it is indeed amazing that small countries such as Jamaica can beat them all consistently in certain targeted categories.

Over the past fortnight we all sat glued to our television sets – oldfashioned box or modern flat screen – and marvelled at the grace, polish and sheer power of a Usain Bolt or a Yohan Blake as they blazed down the track in London to burn up the records of the past. And two days ago, we were again mesmerised as those two and their team-mate, Warren Weir, sewed up the medal haul with a gold-silver-bronze sweep of the 200-metre event. It was something the team had in mind for the 100-metre as Jamaica’s 50th anniversary present, but Asafa’s leg problem prevented that. It would have been awesome if Trinidad and Tobago had won bronze in that race, to mark its 50th three weeks away.

These are but two of the 302 events in 39 disciplines of 26 sports with some 10,500 athletes from 204 national Olympic committees participating. Traditionally, the games were about individual efforts, but in recent years team sports have taken on more prominence and importance, reinforced by the relentless commercialism which surrounds all such events these days. Yet it is still an uplifting experience to witness the emotions on the faces of the young contestants as they beat their best previous performances by jumping higher over the bar, throwing a javelin or a steel ball farther than anyone else, by enduring the body-wracking ordeal of the 5,000-metre race, 3,000-metre steeplechase or the really gruelling 42-kilometre marathon and 50-kilometre walk.

While the bunch of superannuated aristocrats who never have to worry about paying the rent – the International Olympic Committee, which occupies a fancy palace in Lausanne, Switzerland – bask in reflected glory, millions of young people train their hearts out every day on the dusty plains and plateaus of East Africa, on football pitches across Latin America, makeshift tracks in rural parts of the Caribbean, in Chinese gymnasiums and in high-tech games centres in Europe and North America. The majority rely on the goodwill of their families and communities, sympathetic employers and sometimes, governments embarrassed into supporting them. Yet there is never any shortage of candidates willing to expose themselves to the world every four years.

They alone make it worth putting up with the astronomical costs of preparing facilities (some of which never get much use after the competitors pack up and go home), providing security and infrastructure as well as welcoming the thousands of visitors who come from near and far to witness the performances of the world’s best. The last time London played host to the games was in 1948, a scant three years after the end of World War Two. Large tracts of Britain’s cities were flattened by German bombs and the exhausted population was enduring stricter rationing than they had to during the six years of war.

Because they couldn’t afford to build any new facilities, the British used what they had, and unlike today’s purposebuilt accommodation with all the comforts of home, put up the athletes in military barracks and even asked them to bring their own towels and supplies. The British were boggled by the spectacle of the US team, who brought not only their own towels, but their own food as well – stuff like steaks and fresh vegetables which were only a faint memory for many in war-torn Britain. Not to mention chewing gum and chocolates.

Over the years the games have evolved from a collection of activities indulged in mainly by the upper class – like equestrian contests, golf and yachting – to events which resonate with the great mass of ordinary folk. But then, the founder of the modern games was a French count – Pierre de Courbertin, who was enamoured with the idea of the original Olympics originating in ancient Greece. Those games were all-male affairs, with women taking part only at arm’s length – by entering horses in the equestrian events. They owned the horses and thus may have been given credit for winning by virtue of that rather than by actually taking part. In those days the ideal was for the men to run, jump, wrestle and ride unhindered by clothes, and it would have been considered unseemly for women to do so or even, perhaps, to watch them. In any case, men were the only free citizens of Greece, the others being subservient to the free men either because they were wives or children or were actual slaves captured in battle.

Coubertin and the early IOC rulers were also disdainful of women, and at first the games were the preserve of men.The first female participants were in the 1900 games, in tennis and golf. It was a slow process for bringing women into the games: the 1928 Olympics featured women’s athletics and gymnastics for the first time. It got so bad that a French woman named Alice Milliat founded the International Feminine Sporting Federation in 1921, and in response to the refusal of the International Amateur Athletics Federation to include track and field events for women in the 1924 games, Milliat’s group decided to hold a Women’s Olympic Games in 1922. The IOC forced the federation to stop calling their games “Olympics” and they became the Women’s World Games until 1934, when the IAAF forced the federation to hand control of women’s athletics to it. But the pressure tactics worked, and in exchange for the change in name, the IOC added 10 women’s events to the 1828 Olympics.

The process ground on slowly, with women fighting at home for money, facilities and coaching and at the IOC for inclusion. Women’s boxing is included for the first time in the London games, and now there are no sports that exclude women. But there are still many places where women do not have equal rights to men in participation in sports. Prejudices and biases, often backed by religious rationalisation, still keeps them away in many countries, Muslim ones in particular. Brunei, Saudi Arabia and Qatar had never sent women to the games until this year, and did so only because of unrelenting pressure from the IOC.

These countries have sent only token numbers – Saudi Arabia has sent two who had to compete while wearing restrictive clothing. Nothing has really changed in that backward society which continues to repress women. Unlike next-door Qatar, which has modern facilities to train girls and young women in a variety of sports, Saudi Arabia is perhaps the only country in the world which still refuses to allow girls to take part in sports in public schools.

Women have come a long way in the field of sports, but for many, the goal still lies far away – at the end of a steeplechase and perhaps a marathon after that.

keeble.mack@sympatico.ca

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