Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Female Olympians

Wojdan ShaherkaniI cried, and I don’t mean the quiet, almost elegant tears that trickle down an athlete’s face on a medal stand; these tears were messy, but were filled with pride and hope. As I watched Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani, the first female athlete from Saudi Arabia to compete in the Olympics, take a hesitant step onto the mat, I felt my whole being screaming “you go girl!” And yes, I know it is a cliché, but I couldn’t help myself.

82 seconds later, the 16 year old Shaherkani had been defeated in her elimination judo match, and was bombarded by reporters clamoring for her attention. An 82 second judo loss is not usually a noteworthy feat, but the political, social, and cultural implications of Shaherkani’s competition reach far beyond her scores and skill as a judoka.

Saudi Arabia had never allowed a female to compete in the Olympics until this year, when they traveled to London with Shaherkani and with Sarah Attar (who participated in track and field). Within the confines of their country, Saudi women are not allowed to participate in physical education or public athletics, but there are revolutionaries like Lina al-Maenna, who started a basketball league and training center for women in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 2006.

Shaherkani and Attar are the latest in a long line of groundbreaking women in athletics.

  • In 1957, Althea Gibson became the first black person to win the Wimbledon tournament. Gibson won a Grand Slam title in 1956 after winning the French Open. Following her tennis career, Gibson sent 10 years as New Jersey Commissioner of Athletes and continued to herald the rights for all who desire to play sports. 
  • Billy Jean King never competed on an Olympic tennis court, but she is among the most decorated American tennis athletes and a fierce advocate for equality for all people in sport and life. She is perhaps best know for defeating Bobby Riggs, professional, American male tennis player, in the much publicized “Battle of the Sexes in 1973. King’s contribution and seemingly unending fervor and work for parity wages on today.
  • In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, Mia Hamm, with her a rocket-like goal scoring technique and humble nature, won 2 Olympic gold medals, and 2 World Cup championships. Hamm exponentially increased the popularity of soccer in the United States, and in doing so expanded the emphases and efforts on female youth sports programs. 
These women are only three of the vast number of women who have through sport, helped change the social climates of the neighborhoods, cities, countries, and the world. They helped bring about the most recent Olympics, which was also dubbed “The Women’s Olympics”. This year, every country (including, for the first time, Qatar and Brunei) sent females to compete in the games. For the first time in history, the United States had more female than male athletes represented, and the females won more medals. Of course, it’s not really about medals or a greater number of athletes, but it’s about the equal opportunity brought about by countless women and men who have championed the rights and humanity of all people.

The Olympics could be seen as just a 17-day long sporting event, but these games could also be a catalyst for change, a spark that reinvigorates all whose souls are weary from the pains, setbacks, and losses of striving for equality and freedom. May this tiny glimmer of hope be fuel for all who champion the rights and dignity off all women, men, and children around the world.

Want to read more about the role of women in the Olympics? Check out this article by Shahnaz Taplin-Chinoy, chairperson of Invest in Muslim Women, on whether Saudi women in the Olympics represent a breakthrough or tokenism.

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