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

Published: Sunday, July 29 2012 5:31 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012 file photo, Claressa Shields, left, and Tika Hemingway battle during a middleweight boxing match at the U.S. Olympic women's boxing team trials in Spokane, Wash. Shields is one of a crowd of female athletes grabbing the limelight at the 2012 London Olympics Games, which are quickly shaping up as a watershed for women's sports. (AP Photo/Jed Conklin, File)

Jed Conklin, AP

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Much has been made about the record number of women participating in the 2012 Olympic Games in London this summer.

And rightly so, as there is a lot to celebrate.

Consider that just four decades ago, in 1972, 1,059 of the 7,134 athletes competing (in 195 events) were women. And this summer in London, 4,862 of the 10,500 competitors are female (competing in 302 events).

And maybe the most heartening statistic is this: For the first time in history, every one of the 205 countries competing in the 2012 Games has at least one woman on its team.

For most countries, this increased female participation follows changing and evolving views on women in society, as well as in sports. That would be the case in the United States, where 40 years ago this summer a federal education bill ensured that women would have the same opportunities that men did at publicly funded institutions.

That included athletic opportunities.

So it is no coincidence then that the 2012 U.S. team actually has a few more women than men (269 females and 261 males).

But before we get carried away celebrating "The Year of the Woman" and congratulating ourselves about how far we've all come, keep in mind that not all women are as fortunate as those wearing red, white and blue.

What is inspiring to some of us looks like a fantasy to millions of others.

That's because not every country believes women should be participating in athletics, let alone on a world stage.

Saudi Arabia, which is one of three countries including women for the first time, would not have allowed two women to compete under its flag if the IOC had not threatened to bar Saudi Arabia from Olympic competition if it didn't include women.

An agreement was reached between Olympic officials and the country's government just weeks before Friday's opening ceremony. And while it may make us all feel good to say every country is now including women, the reality is that the two women included on the Saudi Arabian team are not qualified to compete at the Games, nor are they typical of the country's female population.

Sprinter Sarah Attar, who is a sophomore member of the Pepperdine track team, was born and raised in Escondido, Calif., but has dual citizenship. How significantly did the IOC bend qualifying standards for Attar? Her best 800-meter time is slower than the top six times turned in by 4A high school girls competing at this year's state championship track meet (2:20).

The other woman, judo athlete Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, trains at home with her father, who is a judo coach and official. She has never competed in public. (Sunday he threatened to pull her from the competition if she wasn't allowed to wear the head covering (Hajib) required by their Muslim faith. Judo officials are afraid the competition will become entangled in the required headgear.)

Saudi Arabian blogger Eman Al Nafjan wrote about the issue on Guardian.co.uk, and whether or not it can be called progress when the laws of her country bar women not just from participating in sports but even from watching at public arenas.

"These two are not finalists, or the best of the best of Saudi sportswomen, because according to the Saudi government, femininity and sports are incompatible," Nafjan wrote.

"Physical education for girls is banned in the public school system and while there are more than 150 official sports clubs regulated by the sports ministry, general presidency of youth welfare, none of them even allow women on the grounds, never mind to actually play. Saudi women are not only not allowed to participate, they are barred as spectators in all major stadiums.

"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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