Like many of you, every four years I am bitten by the Olympics bug. I am caught up in the beauty of the Games. Young athletes, dedicated to hard work and a dream, have gathered to compete. And this time all of us really are together on the same stage.
For the first time in the history of the Games, every participating country has sent a woman as part of its delegation. It’s also the first time that women can medal in virtually all the same events as men.
And for those of us watching from the sidelines, we can’t help but be moved by the inspiring and at times heartbreaking stories of young women at the Games. From the track to the pool to the soccer pitch, young women are making us proud.
But without fail, sexism routinely rears its ugly head during the coverage of the Games. Take, for example, the non-stop assessments of female athletes’ looks – whether they are thin enough, feminine enough – and references to some of them as divas.
When 16-year-old Gabby Douglas became the first African-American woman to win an individual all-around gold in gymnastics, there were numerous references to her hair not being “done.” Hard work, poise and the highest accomplishment for an athlete in her field didn’t seem to matter as much as her appearance.
Then there’s the ogling of the beach volleyball players. And, on the other end of the spectrum, the Muslim athletes and their uniforms.
Really, they are the bigger story at these Olympics. More than 3,000 of the athletes at these Games – almost a third – are Muslims.
Countries where women can’t drive or go outside after dark without a male escort have sent their daughters and sisters and wives to represent them on the world’s biggest stage. Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, where I lived for 10 years, have all sent women athletes for the first time. It is something an eight-year-old me could never have imagined in Jeddah.
Despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power and the military’s tight grip on Egypt, the country has sent 34 female athletes to the Games.
From war-ravaged Afghanistan, many parts of which are still controlled by the Taliban, a brave Tahmina Kohistani is sprinting for her country.
And many of these female athletes from the developing world made it to the Olympics without major sponsors and with less-than-state-of-the-art training facilities. Determination and pushing the boundaries of patriarchy got them there.
When the two female athletes from Saudi Arabia entered the Olympic stadium, a Twitter user referred to them as the “prostitutes of the Olympics.” Wojdan Shaherkani went to compete in judo. There were lengthy negotiations about modifying her hijab, which her country insisted she wear, and the IOC relented. Even then the naysayers and the hardliners weren’t happy. She was accused of being dishonourable because she fought in front of men. Saudi television did not broadcast her fight. And while she may have lost her first match, her loss was a victory for a much greater fight.
Whether you agree with her wearing of the hijab or not, Ms. Shaherkani’s presence at the Games matters. And maybe some day, many years from now, when her daughter is competing at the Olympics, she may know what a giant leap her mother took for all of us.
The Olympic Games are about more than individual athletes; they are about what we value as a global community. When countries that still believe women are second-class citizens send those women to represent them, it is a moment of real honour – and the first step in a marathon for change.
Natasha Fatah is a Toronto-based writer.