For Women at Games, Messages Are Mixed

If Saudi Arabia treated women any more dismissively, it could host the Masters.

After signaling that Saudi women may be allowed to compete in the Olympics for the first time at the London Games, Saudi officials retreated. The only possibility remaining, it seems, is that a few Saudi women might gain entry as unofficial participants. They must walk behind men at home, but apparently cannot walk behind the Saudi flag in London.

"Saudi Arabia has pretty much decided to play hedgehog, head pulled in, spikes out," said Christoph Wilcke, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, who wrote a scathing report about the discrimination against female athletes in the ultraconservative Islamic kingdom, where even physical education classes and sports club memberships are prohibited. "They are irked by all this attention."

As the London Games approach, all sorts of mixed messages are being sent about women, some by women themselves, having more to do with what they will wear and how they will behave and how they should be controlled than about how they will perform in competition.

In a recent profile of the beach volleyball player Zara Dampney, The London Evening Standard noted, "She’s got one of the most talked-about bottoms in British Olympic sport but can’t understand the fascination with it."

Officials of the International Amateur Boxing Association, noted fashion mavens, had a brilliant idea over the past year, a fistic version of "Project Runway."

They suggested that women try wearing skirts in competition, urging pleats to feminize the punches. The man in charge of the association — they are always men — said he had received complaints that spectators could not tell women from men beneath the protective headgear. Instead of referring these spectators to optometrists, he referred the boxers to the Ring Magazine spring collection.

Much ridicule came next and officials took a sartorial eight count. Skirts will be optional, not mandatory, at the London Olympics as women’s boxing makes its debut. The same is true of badminton after officials faced charges of sexism and participants demanded to be treated as athletes, not differentiated or marginalized as female athletes.

"It’s an interesting time for women," said Janice Forsyth, director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario. "The more they become involved in sport, the more it seems people feel the need to market female sexuality. It’s a tough bind for women — they have to look good and be attractive to the public, presumably a heterosexual male public, and be good athletes. That same standard doesn’t necessarily apply to men."

Alex Morgan, the emerging American soccer forward, posed for the recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, wearing only a bikini sprayed on with body paint. Morgan will play in London, but she seems to have confused the Earl of Sandwich with Earl Scheib.

Presumably, Morgan wanted to show that she was strong and feminine. Instead, she reinforced the unfortunate notion that to be successful, female athletes must position themselves as sex objects. And endure more undercoating than a Toyota Corolla.

Track and field outfits for some women at the London Games will be nearly as revealing as spray-painted bikinis. When Australia unveiled its Adidas uniforms last month, Sally Pearson, the world-champion hurdler, said it was difficult to tell her Olympic suit from her birthday suit.

"There’s not much of it," Pearson said. "In a way, it still feels like your skin, so it’s kind of like you are naked."

There is more accommodating news on other fronts. The International Volleyball Federation will permit more conservative outfits for beach volleyball, citing cultural and religious sensitivities. Shorts and sleeved tops will be allowed in London, not simply bikinis the size of a Dairy Queen napkin.

FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, is reconsidering its ban on hijabs, the headscarves worn by Muslim women. This should prevent another embarrassment like the one last year, in which Iran’s women’s team had to forfeit an Olympic qualifying match. And it should attract more participants in a sport struggling for visibility more than "CBS This Morning."

Track and field’s world governing body has come to its senses and allowed Paula Radcliffe’s fastest time to stand as the women’s world record in the marathon. Last fall, track officials scrapped records that women had set in road races in which men also competed. Meanwhile, they let stand East German records widely accepted to have been fueled by doping.

There is still the unsettled case of Saudi Arabia, which bars women from sports, claiming it will lead to immoral behavior, by using tradition and discredited science. The Human Rights Watch report issued in February referred to a religious scholar who said that "the health of a virgin girl will be affected by too much movement and jumping in sports such as soccer and basketball."

Wilcke, the Human Rights Watch researcher, said, "It is impossible to square Saudi discrimination against women with the noble values of the Olympic Charter," which forbids intolerance.

But do not count on the International Olympic Committee, the hoariest old boys’ club, to take a bold stance and bar Saudi Arabia from the London Games. Earlier this month, Olympic officials seemed more concerned about another urgent women’s issue: sportswriters and their shoes.

Around the Rings, an influential Olympic newsletter, reported that sandals, flip-flops and open-toed shoes were being barred for Olympic reporters, male and female, for reasons of safety and aesthetics.

"I think it will be a great relief to look down when I am interviewed and not see hairy feet or fluorescent-painted toes," an unidentified Olympic official told the newsletter.

Turns out, it was an April Fool’s joke. If that were only the case with Saudi Arabia and its treatment of women.

"That women in vigorous activities will upset their wombs, reproductive activity and menstrual cycle — it’s amazing they can put forth these arguments and be accepted with the science we have," said Forsyth, the Olympic scholar. "My students laughed at that. They were shocked. That’s something we saw a hundred years ago."