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Column: Time for IOC to stand firm against Saudis

FILE - A tug boat pulls a barge with giant Olympic rings that are 11 meters (36 feet) tall and 25 meters (82 feet) wide towards Tower Bridge as they are unveiled on the River Thames in London. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant, File)

"The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit ..."

Those are the International Olympics Committee's own words, spelled out at the very beginning of its charter, right after the preamble, under a section known as "Fundamental Principles of Olympism."

It's time for the IOC to live up to them.

If Saudi Arabia won't allow women to compete at the London Games, tell the guys who run the oil-rich kingdom they can keep the rest of their team - the men - at home, too.

No more negotiations. No more sorting out the details. This is a major issue, no less important than a stand taken by the IOC nearly a half-century ago when faced with the issue of apartheid in South Africa.

Less than a month before the 1964 Olympics - roughly the same amount of time that we stand away from the start of the London Games - the organization banned South Africa from sending a team to Tokyo because of its policy of racial discrimination. Never mind that South Africa tried to buy itself some time by offering to send a team with seven nonwhites among its 62 athletes.

The IOC held firm. The ban lasted until the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, after Nelson Mandela had been freed from prison and apartheid had been totally dismantled.

We'll never know exactly how much influence the IOC's ban - and other sports-related boycotts - had on shutting down that despicable system. But rest assured, it didn't hurt.

Now, it's time to act again, boldly and with purpose, to fully comply with the very next principle of Olympism after the one mentioned above: "Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement."

Seems pretty clear. If Saudi Arabia insists on remaining the last holdout against allowing females to compete, their invitation to Britain is revoked.

"You've got a single country that's being intransigent," Martha Davis, a law professor at Northeastern University who specializes in women's rights, said Thursday. "Certainly in the past, after years of apartheid, the Olympic bureaucracy was able to take a stand against a racist nation. Here, we've got a country singularly out of step with the rest of the world. It's really time for the IOC to take a bolder stand against that."

Saudi Arabia's male athletes would be victims in this whole mess, too, forced to miss out on the grandest sporting event of their lives even if they don't have the least bit of problem with marching into the Olympic Stadium alongside women. Unfortunately, there's always collateral damage in these sort of disputes. There were undoubtedly plenty of worthy South Africans who missed out on the Olympics during the 28 years their country was banned through no fault of their own. There is no repaying what they lost, but at least a greater good was the result.

That is the hope for Saudi Arabia.

"I'm sure the IOC wants to be as inclusive as possible," Davis said. "But this is a country that has already taken a policy that excludes half the population from participating."

Saudi Arabia's foot-dragging comes at a time when both sides of the debate over gender and religious beliefs are taking constructive steps toward a workable middle ground.

On Thursday, the rules-making panel of international soccer approved headscarves for female Muslim players, reversing a ban on the Islamic hijab that's been enforced in FIFA competitions since 2007, supposedly for safety reasons. Last year, the international weightlifting federation reversed a similar ban, allowing athletes to compete in uniforms that cover their legs, arms and head.

Kulsoom Abdullah, an American lifter who hopes to get a wild-card berth to compete for Pakistan (where her parents were born) at the London Games, led the fight to overturn clothing restrictions in her sport. Likewise, she wants to see at least one Saudi woman competing at the Olympics.

"One would be better than nothing," she told The Associated Press on Thursday. "Even if just one woman is sent, at least she would get some media attention and some awareness about her involvement within the Arab countries and internationally. The more women know about, the more it's going to open some doors and some opportunities."

IOC president Jacques Rogge seems set on a course of negotiation, telling the AP in an interview Wednesday that he cannot guarantee "100 percent" that female athletes from Saudi Arabia will compete at the Olympics for the first time, although he remains optimistic.

The IOC already persuaded two other nations, Qatar and Brunei, to include women on their Olympic teams for the first time, so there is clearly some benefit to talking things out behind closed doors.

But Rogge must make it clear to Saudi Arabia that if those details can't be worked out, an all-male team is not an option.

"This," Davis said, "is really a human rights issue."

It's also a religious issue, and that's where things get a bit sticky. Saudi Arabia is a deeply traditional and ultraconservative Muslim society. Women are severely restricted in public life - they can't even drive - and there are no genuine sporting opportunities. Physical education classes? A trip to the gym? A jog along the highway? No, no and no.

Abdullah, however, said religion really shouldn't play a role in this issue.

"Going through Islamic history, there are many, many examples of strong women who were very active. Unfortunately, it has to do with the culture," she said. "Men, because of their egos, interpret this a different way and say women shouldn't do this for religious reasons. But I see nothing in the Quran that says women shouldn't be strong and active. Not at all."

The Saudis have been sending mixed signals on their intentions. The head of the country's Olympic committee said a few months ago that female participation had not been approved and would go against the kingdom's tradition and norms. But the Saudi embassy in London said last week that female athletes would be allowed to take part - if they qualify.

That's an important caveat, and one Rogge should make abundantly clear will not be a roadblock. The IOC already allows wild cards - such as the spot Abdullah is seeking - for athletes who aren't necessarily Olympic-caliber but represent poorer nations with less-established sports programs. It's a noble gesture, and one that has helped spread sports to all corners of the globe.

Surely, having already planned for more than 10,000 athletes in London, the IOC can free up a few spots for some Saudi women, no matter their competitive limitations.

So, when the jet bearing the Saudi Olympic team lands in London, there better be women on it.

If not, the IOC should send it right back where it came from.

Along with a copy of the Olympic charter.

 

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