When Hope Solo told ESPN recently that Olympic Village is basically just a hedonistic Parthenon fuckdome, the sentiment was as empowered as it is debauched. As recently as 1984, women from the over-200 nations that participate in the Olympic games weren't allowed to run a marathon in the Los Angeles games. By 1996, 26 countries were still abstaining from sending women to the 1996 Atlantic games.
But this year—appropriately enough, the year that anti-gender discrimination in athletics law Title IX turned 40—there's been two significant instances of progress this year for female athletes: first, in this year's London Olympics, 269 American women and 261 men will be competing. Secondly, Saudi Arabia is sending two women to the UK for the games: Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani in javelin and Sarah Attar in the 800-meter run, which inspired Muslim countries Qatar and Brunei to send their own female competitors to the Games for the first time.
Attar, 19, says she's honored to represent Saudi Arabia at the Games and hopes to make "big strides for women [in Saudi Arabia] to get involved in sport." However, Attar was born and raised in California, attended Pepperdine University and completed her training in San Diego. Women in Saudi Arabia are effectively barred from athletics. Human Rights Watch director of global initiatives Minky Warden illuminated this discrepancy in a statement that criticized Saudi Arabia for doing "the bare minimum" to placate the International Olympics Committee and avoid international contempt:
This is a breakthrough for the two women who will compete under the Saudi flag, but it raises the irony that millions of women and girls in Saudi Arabia are still denied an opportunity to participate as a matter of government policy.
Warden and Human Rights Watch implore the I.O.C. (comrpised of "white European men," they also note) to take this opportunity to allow female sports in schools and create women's divisions in the Saudi games.
This is an advance, a precedent that could be difficult for hard-liners to roll back. At the same time, the I.O.C. has a real responsibility to get genuine reform. Otherwise, disallowing sport for women inside the country is still a violation of the Olympic charter, which bans gender discrimination.
'At London Olympics, A Victory For Women [New York Times]