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Column: ‘That doesn’t mean we simply give up.’

March 8, 2013

Remember that “great message to women” the International Olympic Committee was trumpeting all last spring and summer, the one about how the participation of a few token female athletes from the Gulf states at the London Games would crack open a wider world of possibilities?

Turns out that was way too optimistic.

If it’s possible, there seems to be even fewer opportunities for women in the region to compete. Latest example: United Nations organizers canceled plans for a third annual marathon in Gaza, scheduled for April 10, after the Palestinian territory’s Hamas rulers banned women from participating.

“Are things better for all women in all places? Not necessarily,” Anita DeFrantz, a former U.S. Olympian and IOC board member, said by telephone Thursday. “What’s important is that people continue asking the question.”

As it happens, De Frantz was in New York, where she’s scheduled to address the United Nations about women in sports. She acknowledged “change is not taking place at nearly the pace we view change here in the U.S., and the rest of the western world. That doesn’t mean we simply give up.”

Oddly enough, Hamas had allowed women to run in the 2011 and 2012 races. Gaza Cabinet secretary Abdul-Salam Siam refused to say why his government reversed course, though he did say Hamas would have allowed young girls to compete this time around. That wasn’t likely to happen, anyway.

While Islamic doctrine does not specifically ban women from running, the sterner tribal norms that Hamas members and many Gaza residents adhere to effectively keep women from moving in ways that reveal the shape of their bodies. Even before Hamas’ latest edict, Nader Masri, who represented Palestine in the five-kilometer race in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, conceded the idea of women running in public in Gaza was dangerous, if not impossible. As a result, any girls or women in the crowded coastal strip with athletic ambitions are forced to train indoors, in secret, or in most cases, not at all.

“My dad told me that I’m a pretty woman now, and not a girl anymore, so I can’t run in the streets,” said Noura Shukri, a 15-year-old high school student. She ran in the first two Gaza marathons, but didn’t bothered to sign up for this year’s event because she feared it would cause trouble for her father. “It will be a headache for him because people will gossip,” she added.

The real cynics in all this, though, are those still in control at the IOC. During the run-up to the London Olympics they were besieged by human-rights activists demanding they honor the words in their own charter — “Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination” — and that the delegation of every country in attendance include both men and women. The IOC cut all kinds of deals — even waiving their minimum competitive standards — so that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei would attend with female athletes and IOC president Jacques Rogge could include this line in his speech at the opening ceremony:

“For the first time in Olympic history all the participating teams will have female athletes. This is a major boost for gender equality.”

Except it wasn’t.

Saudi Arabian judoist Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, one of only two women on her national team, lasted all of 82 seconds before finding a soft place to land, and lost. And even that highlight — or lowlight, take your pick — wasn’t shown on television back home. Qatari runner Noor Hussain al-Malki, likewise, pulled up just 15 meters into her 100-meter heat, grabbing her right leg and leaving the arena in a wheelchair.

Afterward, IOC spokesman Mark Adams said with a straight face, “Did we expect them to win gold medals? Probably not.”

The question Adams should have asked, though, might have been, “Do you expect them to return home with more and varied opportunities to get better?” If so, he would have honestly answered it, “Who knows?”

In that sense, Shahrkhani’s example might be instructive. Prior to the London Games, she had never fought in an organized event anywhere, at any level. Her father, a judo referee trained her in in a small room in the family’s house in Mecca. Swept up in the glow of her brief Olympics experience, he talked about opening a training studio so his daughter and other women could sharpen their skills and take a real turn on the world’s biggest sporting stages. Seeking a progress report, I called AP reporter Barbara Surk, who covers sports in that corner of the world from our Lebanon bureau. She, too, has been trying to find the Shahrkanis since the London Olympics.

“Nothing,” she said. “It’s like they’ve disappeared.”

You might say the same thing about the IOC’s effort on behalf of sportswomen in the Gulf states, though De Frantz has no such plans. She is scheduled to speak Monday to the UN, where the IOC has permanent observer status, and said she might find the time and room to make some revisions in her report.

“Remember, the sports movement, and progress in that regard, isn’t something that only happens every four years at the Olympics,” De Frantz said. “It’s every day. ... And there is going to be push and pull on all those days in between.”


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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