Column: 'Great message' for Muslim women? Or sham?
LONDON (AP) — The judo match between a young Saudi and her Puerto Rican opponent was not, as the International Olympic Committee shamelessly called it afterward, "a great message to women." It was a sham.
It was no more competitive, in its own way, than the badminton matches that got eight athletes from four countries tossed from these games at midweek. As far as breaking barriers, it would have been like Jackie Robinson stepping up to the plate in a major league baseball game for the first time — and then laying down in the batter's box.
There's no reason to blame Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, one of only two women on the Saudi Arabian team. She walked into the arena blinking at the bright lights and never had a chance. She spent nearly all of the 82 seconds of her match against Melissa Mojica circling the mat, looking for a soft spot to land. Small wonder.
Shahrkhani had never fought in an organized event anywhere, at any level. The sum of her experience was comprised of two years' training in a small room in her family's house in Mecca, coached by her father, a judo referee.
Her match was not the only farce Friday involving women competing on teams from the Gulf states for the first time. Not long after Shahrkhani was dropped, Qatari runner Noor Hussain al-Malki broke slowly from Lane 3 and pulled up after just 15 meters of the 100-meter heat, grabbing her right leg. She left the arena in a wheelchair.
"Did we expect them to win gold medals?" IOC spokesman Mark Adams asked afterward without waiting for an answer. "Probably not. But they're here, they're competing and I think we should be very happy."
Easy for him to say, since Shahrkhani and al-Malki were the dupes in all of this, pawns sent here thanks to a compromise between the IOC, officials from each country and the respective sports federations that waived their minimum competitive standards. Put another way, the women were here to provide cover so Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei — the third Islamic state to include women on its team for the first time — could participate without further riling up human-rights activists, and so IOC boss 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."
The first sentence is true only in the most literal sense, the second only in Qatar, where officials hope to expand their growing international sports portfolio and have been providing girls and women increasing access to facilities and resources in schools and academies. In Saudi Arabia, not so much.
For all the cheering inside the ExCel Center, no news reports or highlights of Shahrkhani's match appeared back home. There were fears even before the competition that hard-liners in the ultraconservative kingdom, where women need a male relative's permission to work, travel abroad and even check into a hospital, likely will try to make an example of Shahrkhani and her family.
Some women who compete in underground sports leagues worry that instead of fostering more opportunities, the public display by a female athlete — even though Shahrkhani received an exemption to compete in a modified hijab — will result instead in a crackdown. What comes next is anybody's guess.
Still, when officials in Saudi Arabia announced Shahrkhani's addition to the team, they couldn't even be bothered to spell her name correctly. Her age was listed as 16 by games organizers, as 19 on the Saudi Olympic website and as 17 by her father. What she said afterward, whispering in Arabic as her brother sat alongside, sounded only slightly more credible.
"Unfortunately, we did not win a medal, but in the future we will and I will be a star for women's participation," Shahrkhani said.
But at the moment, girls in Saudi Arabia can't attend physical education classes because there aren't any. Women can't jog in public or go to a gym. The few privileged universities whose women compete in sports do so only at private venues and makeshift stadiums. None of it is likely to change anytime soon, either, as long as the old-boy network that runs the kingdom can get away with parodies like this.
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.