Friday, 10 August 2012

The equality games

A week ago today the British team clocked up their first Olympic gold, courtesy of the women’s pair,  Helen Glover and Heather Stanning.  This was also Britain’s first ever gold medal in women’s rowing.

Their win proved to be just the start of an incredible run of success for Britain’s female athletes.  The pair’s success was quickly followed by gold medals for the other two women’s small boats, with Katherine Grainger finally breaking her run of silvers to take the gold in the doubles with her partner, Anna Watkins, while the lightweight doubles event saw Katherine Copeland and Sophie Hosking cruise home to an unexpected victory.

Away from Dorney, the medals kept coming for the women, with British women on the podium for road and track cycling, in the equestrian events, in judo, gymnastics, athletics, swimming and boxing.  As things currently stand, women account for nearly half of Britain’s total gold tally.

But it’s not just a numbers game.  The London 2012 Olympics have been the women’s Olympics for several reasons.  What has been apparent at these games is that women’s sport is no longer seen as second-best by spectators and commentators.  Jessica Ennis and Katherine Grainger took home two of the most eagerly anticipated gold medals of the games. 

Jessica Ennis was the poster girl for the London Olympics, and rightly so.  The winners of the heptathlon and decathlon can lay claim to the title of best all-round athletes in the world. 

Katherine Grainger was an equally popular winner, probably because her path to gold has been played out in the public eye.  Millions of people saw her get so tantalisingly close at three consecutive Olympics, and they watched her pick herself up and just keep going.

Women’s football has proved popular with the media, and the women have found themselves on the receiving end of several positive comparisons with their male counterparts, as the inflated salaries and celebrity status of male footballers has been called into question by more than one commentator.  Road cycling, at a peak of popularity after Bradley Wiggins’s historic Tour de France win, was expected to deliver a British medal, but it was a woman who brought home a silver, after Mark Cavendish became a victim of his own success, with the rest of the world effectively teaming up against the British men’s team.

Charlotte Dujardin is another competitor who has attracted more column inches than she could ever have expected after she won Britain’s first ever dressage gold, and followed it up with a second win in the team event, making her one of a very small group of women who have won more than one gold medal in a single Olympics. 

Boxer, Nicola Adams also made history, by being the first woman in the world to win an Olympic boxing gold, after the event was offered for the first time at these games.

Unsurprisingly, in the media coverage relating to all of these women, the word “historic” has featured heavily.  This is perhaps a little ironic since, as these medals demonstrate, British women are finally overcoming a great weight of history to reach their potential. 

Women in sport have traditionally been seen as second-best, often patronised, frequently merely tolerated.  Take rowing, for example.  The first Oxford vs Cambridge women’s race was an exhibition event, with the women judged on style as well as time.  Women’s rowing was on the Olympic programme for the first time in 1976.  I was shocked to realise that this was in my lifetime.  We think of ourselves as a country that left its most obvious gender inequality far behind us, and yet women were only permitted to take part in one of our most successful Olympic sports less than forty years ago.

With this kind of legacy, it is no wonder that we are only just starting to see women athletes fulfilling their true potential and take their rightful places alongside male competitors on the podium and in the media.

But women have been at the forefront of these games for reasons other than their sporting successes.  At the opening ceremony, many countries were led out by female flagbearers, including some rather unlikely candidates, such as Somalia and Iraq.  And then there was the Olympic flag, carried by eight, carefully-selected bearers, five of whom were women.  One of these women was Doreen Lawrence, mother of Stephen Lawrence, whose murderers were finally brought to justice this year.  Iain Duncan Smith once said “never underestimate the determination of a quiet man.”  It could be said of Doreen Lawrence that you should never underestimate the determination of a quiet woman.  Or of a mother.  Or of a broken heart.  It was the most bitter-sweet moment of the opening ceremony, an acknowledgement of the end of a long fight for justice and a demonstration of just how powerful the courage and conviction of one woman can be.

The same could be said of Leyma Gbowee, described simply as “a great peacekeeper.”  She is often said to have been the one who brought the Liberian civil war to an end.  She did it by using the superstitions and prejudices of her countrymen against them.  Liberian men believe that it is unlucky to see the body of an older or married female.  Leyma and a group of like-minded women effectively besieged a hotel where African leaders were involved in some fairly half-hearted peace-talks, by threatening to rip off their clothes if the men tried to leave.  The talks took on a new urgency and the deal that saw the end of the civil war was brokered.  In the run-up to the peace-talks, Leyma described women as the “custodians of society” and spoke of her fears for her children.  Hers was a uniquely female protest against a male-dominated crisis.

It is a great shame, that at a games where we have seen a real, growing equality within sport, and a celebration of the political achievements of women, there has been one clear example of ongoing inequality.

There has been a good deal of comment on the fact that this is the first Olympics at which every competing country has sent at least one female competitor.  The most high profile example of this is obviously the Saudi Arabian team.  There have been appreciative comments about this being a big step forward for a country with one of the worst women’s rights records in the world.

I don’t share the enthusiasm of some commentators.  Saudi Arabia was somewhat over a barrel, at risk of being prevented from sending male athletes if they did not include women in their team.  While the Olympic committee clearly had the best of intentions with the stance they took, I do not see that they have advanced the cause of Saudi women as much as they would like to believe.  All that has happened is that two brave, but hopelessly unprepared young women, one of whom has apparently spent very little time in Saudi Arabia, and one of whom has never practiced her sport outside a room in her own home, have been used as pawns to ensure that their countrymen could come to London and take home a bronze medal.  They were pushed out onto a world stage as part of an unspoken deal brokered by men, and it is highly unlikely that anyone will thank them for it.  In fact, the judoka, who is actually resident in Saudi, may well find her life made quite difficult following her brief appearance at the Olympics.

I think the Olympic committee missed an opportunity, that they prioritised their wish to be able to say that these are the first games with a full complement of female competitors over the chance to help bring about meaningful changes, using sport as a medium.  What would have been considerably better would have been for them to tell Saudi Arabia that its male athletes could only compete at these games if their country laid the foundations for the inclusion of Saudi women in sport in general, and that their continued participation in future games would be dependent upon such a programme continuing and producing female athletes who could be genuinely competitive.

These games have shown that British women are beginning to throw off this country’s history of sporting inequality, and that women are capable of moving the world if they are allowed to use the levers of their choosing and pick their own place to stand.  Unfortunately, there are still countries, like Saudi Arabia, where the only place women are permitted to stand is behind their male compatriots, and the only levers they are permitted to hold are for the purpose of crowbarring their men into the positions that they want to be.  But the Saudi leaders have shown that they are willing to sacrifice their allegedly dearly-held beliefs if thee is something they really want.

 Perhaps the Saudi women will remember this when a Doreen Lawrence or a Leyma Gbowee finds the right place to stand and a long enough lever.  And hopefully the standing ovation given to Sarah Attar when she crossed the finish line of the 800m will serve to tell them that the world will stand behind them.

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