(WOMENSENEWS)--The surprise victory of Americans Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers in the first-ever Olympic women's bobsled competition marked another milestone for female athletes at the international games. Yet despite significant progress during the 1990s, preliminary statistics from Salt Lake suggest that women continue to be underrepresented at the games, both as athletes and Olympic officials.
After several years of exponential growth in the number of women competing at the Olympics, the percentage of athletes competing in Salt Lake who are women is no greater than in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan--and slightly down from the percentage of women competing in the 2000 Olympiad in Sydney, Australia. Of the 2,523 athletes accredited by the International Olympic Committee to participate in Salt Lake, 915 are women, or 36.2 percent. In Nagano, this figure was also 36.2; in Sydney, it was 38.2 percent, according to official counts provided by the International Olympic Committee.
In addition, of the 78 countries participating in Salt Lake, 22 brought no women to the games, including Belgium, Thailand, Mexico, South Africa and India, according to news reports. (Hong Kong fielded the only all-female team, comprising 3 short-track speed skaters.) In Nagano, 18 of 72 nations fielded all-male delegations, the committee reported.
Members of the International Olympic Committee and its various arms also continue to be overwhelming male. Only 11 out of the committee's 149 active and honorary members are women. Earlier this year, the committee announced that it would seek to increase the number of women officials to 20 percent by 2006 on the committee and its various arms, including Olympic committees in each country and international federations for each sport.
The committee's first woman vice-president, American Anita DeFrantz, was appointed in 1997. Now head of the committee's Women and Sport Working Group, she was recently defeated in a run for presidency of the organization. She was eliminated on the first ballot, receiving only nine of the 107 votes cast.
Asked if she had been a victim of sexism, DeFrantz said, "Yeah. I have the same credentials or better than any of the candidates."
While some nations sending no women to the games point to a lack of funds, the majority of these countries cite cultural, social and religious differences as the reason for excluding women. In particular, adherence to strict Islamic code forbids women from countries such as Iran, Afghanistan, Oman, Kuwait, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan to display their bodies and compete in sports before a male audience.
In Salt Lake, predominantly Muslim nations Iran, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan sent no women, although the nations did field very small teams overall. Muslim nations typically field larger summer Olympics teams; in Sydney two years ago, for example, Saudi Arabia sent 23 men and no women, Kuwait sent 32 men and no women, Iran sent 34 men and 1 woman and Pakistan sent 26 men and 1 woman.
Nations Barring Women Could Be in Violation of Olympic CharterSome critics argue these nations are violating international human rights law and the Olympic charter, which prohibits "any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, sex or otherwise incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement."
"If the IOC could ban South Africa for 28 years on the basis of racial discrimination, why can't it do the same on the basis of gender?" said Linda Weil-Curiel, founder of Atlanta Plus, a France-based group fighting for equal representation of women at the Olympics. The organization was founded prior to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics is now focused on bringing more women to the Athens games in 2004.
"In Sydney we had a five hour meeting with the IOC during which it was acknowledged that persuasion would work with some countries, as the number of delegations without women is decreasing," said Weil-Curiel. "But there is a hard core of countries with which a different approach should be considered."
Despite their lack of representation at the Olympics, Muslim women have embraced competitive and recreational sports in recent years. Faezeh Hashemi, a member of the Iranian Parliament, founded the Islamic Countries Women Sports Games in 1991 as an alternative to the Olympics. Last October in Tehran, the Muslim Games were held for the third time with Muslim women competing before all-woman crowds in skiing, tennis, swimming, gymnastics, basketball, shooting, fencing, karate and basketball.
"With regard to our participation in social and sports activities, we Muslim women have no intention whatsoever to resemble men," said Hashemi at the opening of the games. "We practice sport because it guarantees our health and grants us joy and strength, but not at the cost of damaging reverence and sanctities."
Muslim women's rights activist Parvin Darabi, founding director of the U.S.-based Dr. Homa Darabi Foundation, complained, however, that women competing in the Islamic Games were not allowed to be photographed, written about or seen by their male relatives during competition.
"Why should a woman be denied the right to show the world what she is capable of?" Darabi said.
Regan Good is a freelance writer based in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
For more information:
International Olympics Committee
Women and Sport Working Group:
Islamic Countries Women Sport Federation
Homa Darabi Foundation: