10 May 2012

Should the IOC ban Saudi Arabia from the 2012 games?

The IOC president tells Channel 4 News he is “optimistic” Saudi women will be able to compete in London 2012. But pressure on the IOC to issue a ban is growing.

“Olympism is a philosophy of life, which places sport at the service of humankind.” So reads the first page of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) charter – a worthy statement putting society and human rights at the heart of the four yearly games.

It goes on to say: “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, sex or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

But the IOC is coming under growing criticism ahead of this summer’s tournament for what detractors say is a failure to adhere to its commendable principles, by allowing Saudi Arabia’s (all-male) team to compete.

Physical education is not provided for Saudi girls at school, and in 2009, the government closed private gyms for women. Opponents of sports for women and girls say that if women begin to exercise, they are more likely to shed modest clothing, spend “unnecessary” time out of the house, and have increased possibilities for mingling with men.

London 2012 is a real opportunity to showcase women’s sport and to start to redress that balance, however our ability to inspire women and girls will be damaged, and the games will be tarnished, if the IOC decides to tolerate this discrimination. Sue Tibballs, WSFF

Prince Nawaf bin Faisal, the Saudi Olympic Committee (SOC) president said in April that he was “not endorsing” female participation in London as part of the official delegation, and there has since been a chorus of voices calling for the IOC to ban the country from participating.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei have never had female competitors at previous Olympics, believing that taking part would compromise women’s religious practice, but both Qatar and Brunei are sending women athletes to this year’s games.

IOC president Jacques Rogge told Channel 4 News he was “optimistic” that Saudi Arabia would send women competitors, adding that discussions with the SOC over this issue are ongoing. And despite the suspension of Afghanistan and South Africa from previous competitions – which activists cite as evidence of ethics and human rights issues being given precedence – a spokeswoman said: “The IOC does not give ultimatums nor deadlines but rather believes that a lot can be achieved through dialogue.”

Ironically, the first ever female athlete from Saudi Arabia to compete at the Olympic level won the country its only medal at the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore. Dalma Rushdi Malhas, 20, was the first female Saudi athlete to compete at an Olympic level. But she was there at the invitation of the IOC – not as a member of the official Saudi delegation.

While the SOC said women would not be part of its official delegation for 2012, it left room for Saudi women to compete independently from the official team, in a similar arrangement to that of Ms Malhas in 2010. However that may not satisfy the IOC’s demands this time around.

Womens sport: ‘steps of the devil’

With only weeks to go, the IOC is cutting it fine. But even so, the issue is about more than Saudi women’s participation in this summer’s games, says Christoph Wilcke, Saudi Arabia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“The IOC stands for Olympic ideals in sport year after year, not just every four years” he told Chanel 4 News.

A report by Mr Wilcke into the denial of women’s rights to sport in Saudi Arabia details what he calls “the predominant conservative view that opening sports to women and girls will lead to immorality: “steps of the devil,” as one prominent religious scholar put it.”

Read more from Keme Nzerem: Questions for Olympic chief Jacque Rogge

‘Our ability to inspire women will be damaged’

Instead of focusing on whether the country will be bringing female athletes to this year’s games, the IOC should have been working on implementing a timeframe and plan to introduce sport for women and girls throughout the year, said Mr Wilcke.

“They [Saudi Arabia] will be casting the net very widely to find another Saudi woman to go to the 2016 Olympics, if women are still not allowed to train between the competitions,” he adds.

Around the world, women and girls participate less in sport than men and boys, according to the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF), which says allowing Saudi Arabia to compete is a slap in the face for equality, and for the future of women’s sports.

It is a charge already weighing heavily on the IOC and its president, Mr Rogge, who could see his last Olympics shrouded in accusations of sexism and of bringing the IOC’s principles into disrepute.

“London 2012 is a real opportunity to showcase women’s sport and to start to redress that balance,” said Sue Tibballs, head of WSFF, “however our ability to inspire women and girls will be damaged, and the games will be tarnished, if the IOC decides to tolerate this discrimination.”