Amy Donaldson: Equality a work in progress — even at the Olympics

Published: Sunday, July 29 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

"It's common knowledge that Saudi women are not allowed to pursue higher education, have major surgery or leave the country without their male guardian's written approval. So it's hard not to see a gleeful irony in the fact that the International Olympic Committee has turned the tables by stipulating that Saudi men can only participate if accompanied by Saudi women."

Another issue is that neither woman, as well as some women from other countries, qualified for the Olympics. Instead, the IOC issued a "wild card" spot to these athletes with the argument that inclusion will help develop athletic opportunity.

It makes sense that allowing women to compete on the Olympic stage would inspire their sisters at home to dream big as well. But in the case of Saudi Arabia, it is not possible.

No one wants to be the token athlete. But most of us would swallow our pride if it meant truly inspiring others and opening doors previously shut.

But in this case, no door has been opened.

"I wouldn't really have an issue with it … if there is a stated goal and a path, then I can absolutely support standards being modified," said Linda Lowen, a former radio and TV journalist who writes about women's issues for About.com. "But Saudi Arabia has nothing in place, no plans to change anything back home. She is being used as a pawn. Nothing will change. This is merely lip service … I find it disingenuous."

Still, women could be inspired by the participation of women from countries that traditionally ban women from athletics. In this age of technology, little girls — and maybe even some little boys — could simply see her on the start line and the desire might be enough to help bring about real change.

"I think there are benefits (to lowering the qualification standards) if there is an opportunity for women to achieve and grow," Lowen told the Deseret News. "What will women do with that energy and that enthusiasm because they live in a culture that is not going to allow that to happen?"

Lowen points to a recent conversation with a female American skeleton athlete in Lake Placid, N.Y. The woman was training nearly eight hours a day and working part-time as a waitress in order to make the 2014 Winter Olympic Team.

"I realized how incredible it is when you have something like that looming on the horizon and you're putting all of your energy and effort into it," she said. "You have a bad day when attempting to qualify and all of those years are just burned away."

The real danger with having women participate thanks to lower standards and political pressure is that the media and general public don't recognize it for what it is.

It's a small step in the right direction, but it doesn't indicate real change in some of these countries.

"It's a lovely fairy tale that ends when they extinguish the torch," Lowen said.

I cannot help but celebrate this moment, even as I acknowledge it is not the milestone I would like it to be.

It's significant that the IOC (the same body that refused to allow women ski jumpers to compete in the 2010 Winter Games) would take a stand on the issue of equality at all.

It's significant that women from countries who view female athletic participation as evil and unnatural would even dare to compete. (They are being threatened and maligned on social media sites.)

It's significant that we believe opportunities for everyone matter. It's significant that the world cares what is possible for someone else's daughters.

And it is significant that we continue to strive for equality, even in places where it seems hopeless.

Twitter: adonsports

email: adonaldson@desnews.com

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