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Why do Middle Eastern countries fail at the Olympic Games? A lack of female athletes (Guest column)

By Danyel Reiche

Middle Eastern countries are among the least successful nations at the Olympics. Four years ago at the Summer Olympic Games in London, only 2 Middle Eastern countries made it into the top 50 of the final medal ranking: Iran won 12 medals and was ranked 17th and Turkey won five in position 32. Egypt, a country that has been participating in the Summer Olympics since 1912 and had some Olympic success in the first half of the 20th century, won just two silver medals, and finished 58th in the medal table.

One reasons for the Middle East’s poor performance is lack of support for female athletes. Six of the nine countries with the lowest all-time female participation in the Summer Olympic Games are Muslim-majority countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Qatar. Sports scholar Gertrud Pfister noted that “whereas male athletes were more or less socially accepted in most Islamic countries, women participating in sports competitions were a contradiction in terms for most of their rulers and (religious) leaders, as well as for the largest part of the population. (…) Muslim women were tiny minorities at the Olympics – if they were present at all”.

Until 1980, among Muslim majority countries, only women from secular countries such as Turkey, Indonesia and pre-revolutionary Iran, were able to compete in elite sports and the Olympics. Turkey is the most successful Muslim majority country in the Olympics and Iran is second. While men won the vast majority of the Turkish medals, Iranian men were the sole only winners of 60 medals earned in Summer Olympics appearances until 2012.

Even relatively progressive Arab countries such as Lebanon only recently started including women in their Olympic squads. Lebanon has competed with one exception in all the Olympic Games since 1948, but over 90% of the athletes were men. Lebanon’s Olympic team did not include women until 1972. However, at the London Summer Olympic Games in 2012, Lebanon’s delegation consisted of more female than male athletes for the first time, making the tiny multi-religious country a best practice case for gender equality in sports in the Middle East.

Three delegations -- Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait -- consisted of men-only teams at the Beijing Games in 2008. The games were the first in which Oman and the United Arab Emirates sent women to compete. At the 2012 London Summer Olympics, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Brunei included women in their Olympic squads for the first time.

One hundred years after the first Olympic Games, Lida Fariman from Iran became the first Muslim woman to carry the flag of her country, at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Not only is the participation of Muslim women low, but the same is also true for their success rate. It was not until 1984 that a Muslim woman won an Olympic gold medal with the success of Moroccan hurdler Nawal El Moutawakel. According to Gertrud Pfister, only six of the 381 medals for women at the 2008 Games were won by women from Islamic countries. It “clearly points to the marginalization of this group in elite sport,” Pfister said.

A study by Qatar Olympic Committee on women’s participation in sports and physical activities found that just 15% of Qatari women ages 15 and older regularly participated in sports,”

Sociologist Geoff Harkness concluded in a study of Georgetown University Qatar women’s basketball team that “families who do not support sports-related activity for women serve as a major barrier to participation.” Women were also hampered by “the belief that women should not engage in heavy physical activity in front of men,” Harkness added.

Moreover, he said, some Qataris believe that males who witness females involved in bodily motion will interpret their bodily movement as sexual and be unable to control their lust.

In an interview, Qatar’s national female soccer team said that only of 30 girls invited to practice with the national team after watching an internal tournament was allowed by her family to play football in public.

External barriers to participation of Muslim women at the Olympics include the dress codes of international sport association that set the rules of sports. World soccer body FIFA addressed the issue when it agreed to lift its ban on the hijab in 2014.

The ban particularly affected the Iranian national women’s soccer team. In June 2011, the Iranian team attempted to play a qualifying game for the 2012 Olympics against Jordan in Amman, while wearing the hijab. The Bahraini FIFA official overseeing the game banned them from doing so and Iran’s coach decided to forfeit the game. Jordan, in accordance with FIFA rules, was awarded a 3–0 victory. Iran also forfeited the remaining three games of the second round of the Asian Football Confederation’s qualifying tournament for the 2012 Olympics. As a result, it did not qualify for the London Olympics.

For philosophy professors Douglas McLaughlin and Cesar Torres, the banning of the hijab contradicts the Olympic Movement’s principle of inclusiveness, enshrined in the words of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Olympic movement that “world peace depends upon the celebration of human diversity and not the eradication of it”. In a paper entitled, ‘A Veil of Separation Intersubjectivity, Olympism, and FIFA’s Hijab Saga,’ McLaughlin and Torres argued that “the practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sports, without discrimination of any kind.”

There are huge differences in the dress codes enforced by international sport associations. Whereas some associations, such as shooting, have no restrictions and allow women to be covered, beach volleyball, for example, obliges female players have to wear shorts with a maximum length of 1.18 inches above the knee, and sleeved or sleeveless tops. “When guided by Olympism, the ISFs should not make policy restrictions regarding what women wear unless they have strong and compelling evidence that safety or fair play are compromised,” McLaughlin and Torres said.

The different dress codes mean that sports such as shooting are more accepted in Muslim countries than beach volleyball that is played in a bikini. However, the fact that more and more Olympic federations are allowing Muslim women to wear the hijab and the increased availability of sports clothes that meet Islamic requirements such as the burkini and the hijood are likely to increase female participation from Arab countries.

All in all, Middle Eastern countries are likely to find Olympic success more difficult to achieve if they do not promote female sports as the number of women’s events increases and mixed gender teams become a fixture of the tournament.

Danyel Reiche is Associate Professor for Comparative Politics at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon and author of the book “Success and Failure of Countries at the Olympic Games”, published by Routledge in 2016.

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