With less than two months to go before the Olympic opening ceremony, every country in the world except one, Saudi Arabia, will have female athletes competing in London. Canada hosted the International Olympic Committee's executive board meeting last month in Quebec City, but what is this country doing to ensure that the Olympic movement advances rights for all women?
In London this summer, men will have the opportunity to win 108 more Olympic medals than women. Today, just 20 of 107 IOC members are women. The majority of these 20 women have no seniority and very little real power. Only one woman, Nawal El Moutawakel of Morocco, sits on the IOC's powerful executive committee, to which yet another man, Wu Ching-Kuo of Taiwan, was nominated last month.
Men will also compete in a sporting event, canoeing, that is not open to women. Women from one nation, however, will be barred from all events, as Saudi officials continue to say that Saudi women athletes will not be present in London.
IOC member Prince Nawwaf al-Faisal, in his dual capacity as Saudi Sports Minister and head of the Saudi National Olympic Committee, said earlier this year that “female sports activity has not existed [in the kingdom] and there is no move thereto in this regard. At present, we are not embracing any female Saudi participation in the Olympics.” This attitude of an IOC member exists despite the IOC's own rules, which explicitly state that discrimination based on gender is incompatible with the Olympic movement.
In 2008 at the Beijing Olympics, only Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia sent all-male teams. This year, Qatar and Brunei have confirmed they will send female athletes for the first time. Saudi Arabia now remains the only country barring female citizens from the Games.
A Human Rights Watch report, Steps of the Devil: Denial Of Women's And Girls' Rights To Sport In Saudi Arabia, sets out how the Saudi government systematically discriminates against women seeking to practise sports. Saudi women aren't just banned from elite Olympic sport, they are not allowed to exercise, play or even participate in physical education. They can't even watch a sports match. “No women allowed” is what life is like for Saudi girls and women who simply aspire to run, throw a ball, swim or ride a bike.
The IOC is the keeper of the Olympic flame, and has immense power over national Olympic committees. In the same way we demand that athletes play by the rules, Saudi Arabia should not be allowed to violate the Olympic Charter's ban on “discrimination of any kind.”
The Canadian Olympic Committee and our Canadian IOC members, Dick Pound and Beckie Scott, can and should speak up and pressure the IOC to enforce its own rules when it comes to women in sport. After Canada's gender discrimination against women ski jumpers at the Vancouver Olympics, our country should take the lead when it comes to women and the Games.
Mr. Pound, who is a senior IOC member, should have no problem telling Prince Nawwaf that Saudi Arabia is not welcome in the Olympic movement unless his country commits to strict timelines for providing sporting opportunities for women and girls, including sports in public schools, access to sporting facilities and support for elite sportswomen. The IOC has gotten tough in the past: It banned South Africa during the apartheid era and Afghanistan during Taliban rule, precisely because those countries discriminated based on race and gender and violated international human rights.
As an Olympian who represented Canada in 1992 and 1996, I take my duty to uphold the values of the Olympic Games seriously. And as a woman athlete, I have a clear duty to promote the rights of women athletes around the world. The Olympic ideals of human dignity and gender equity are my personal ideals too. It is time for the Olympic movement to find its voice and demand access for Saudi Arabia's women to the 2012 Games.
My goal now is for the IOC and the Olympic movement to enforce their own rules, uphold their own ideals and end the ban on women's participation in sport in Saudi Arabia. For IOC members and Olympians past and present, our Olympic movement is at stake when countries like Saudi Arabia are allowed to freely violate the Olympic Charter.
Canadian Olympic and government leaders must publicly urge the IOC to make Saudi Arabia's membership in the Olympic family conditional on sending women to the Olympic Games and ending discrimination against women in sport in the kingdom.
Women still don't have a level playing field in the Olympic movement. As the clock ticks down to the opening ceremony of the London Games, the best way to start addressing this inequality is to insist that Saudi Arabia's women be allowed to play.