On the 17th day of the Olympics, at the International Shooting
Centre, west of Sydney, a woman in a billowy, monochromatic
cloak will raise a pistol in her right hand. She will extend
that arm perfectly parallel to the ground. Peering out from
fabric cowling her face, she will sight a target 10 meters away,
completely still herself and squeeze off a shot.
Manijeh Kazemi, 26, is from the Islamic Republic of Iran, and she
is its sole female Olympian. Shooting is one of the few sports
that can be performed in hejab, the habit that every Iranian
woman must wear so she might remain, as an imam has put it, "as a
pearl in its shell." But her motionless pose will contrast
starkly with what sports have become for women in much of the
rest of the world, where unfettered female movement constitutes a
social movement in the same larger, transformative sense that the
Olympics themselves claim to be.
The presence of this lone Iranian woman signifies an absence,
too. At a time when a record two-fifths of Olympic athletes are
female, when women are competing in every sport that men do
except boxing and wrestling, when IOC president Juan Antonio
Samaranch declares that "the problem of [women's] participation
has been solved," the problem is in fact unsolved. A century
after women first competed in the Olympics, a sizable percentage
of the 199 nations represented in Sydney will still be without a
female athlete. In 1992, 35 of the 173 contingents in Barcelona
were entirely male, as were 26 of the 197 in Atlanta four years
About half of those all-male Olympic teams represented Islamic
regimes like Saudi Arabia, where Koranic laws are so strict,
stricter even than those in Iran, that women aren't permitted to
drive, vote or leave the house without the permission of husbands
or fathers. In Algeria, where supporters of a fundamentalist
insurgency have machine-gunned to death women who wait unveiled
for a bus, Hassiba Boulmerka, the gold medalist in the 1,500
meters at the '92 Games, moves in a cordon of bodyguards and
carries a .38. A Saudi sports magazine once published a
photograph of Boulmerka--but only after retouching sleeves onto
September 17, 2000
In dedicating her medal to women throughout the Muslim world,
Boulmerka posed the question: Where does the truth in Islam lie?
With the Koranic verse that says "Respect women, who have borne
you"? Or with fundamentalists like Afghanistan's ruling Taliban,
who refuse to permit women to get a job, an education, simple
health care, much less game?
To Boulmerka the answer is self-evident. "You cannot wear hejab
on the track," she has said, "just as you cannot wear shorts in
the mosque." To some mullahs in Algeria, who have denounced her
"for running with naked legs in front of thousands of men," the
answer is just as doctrinaire.
But the worldwide struggle of women athletes extends beyond the
Islamic world. Uruguay's 15-member contingent in Sydney will
include only three women, in part because machismo permeates
South America and society dictates the choices women make.
Botswana will send no women, for people in that African nation
struggle simply to eat and stay healthy, and in Setswana culture
playing sports is mostly a male prerogative. To grow up female in
the U.S. and qualify for the Olympics, even as an also-ran, the
odds are daunting. But in much of the rest of the world, those
odds are as long as the wind.
Islamic law, Shariat, is "the road to the spring." "The road I
walk is narrow," Faezeh Hashemi says. So she keeps to the path,
even as modernity beckons from one side and tradition glowers
from the other.
Hashemi founded a newspaper for Iranian women, only to watch
conservative clerics shut it down. She won a seat in parliament,
only to be voted out after one term by restive Tehranis
disappointed that she refused to distance herself from her
father, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the conservative who was
Iran's president from 1989 to '97. She wears blue jeans under her
hejab, yet when she calls for women's sports on Islamic terms she
uses the revolutionary idiom that demonizes the decadent West:
"Today's generation must not be kept thirsty to satiate itself
from the enemy's spring."
Hashemi is a vice president of Iran's Olympic Committee and
founder of the Islamic Countries Women's Games, which began in
1993 and are renewed each quadrennium. Men are permitted to watch
the opening ceremonies and such demure events as chess, riding
and shooting, all of which can be disputed in hejab. For
volleyball and basketball, men are banned and hejab comes off.
Sports for women stopped completely with the fundamentalist
revolution in 1979. Hashemi, who was born in '63, had been
encouraged as a child to practice volleyball, swimming, badminton
and table tennis inside her family's compound. "My father's
support is one of the main reasons we've been able to do what
we've done," she says. "He helped find the money and change
attitudes toward sport for women. People see me as a religious
girl, so they see that you can be a sportswoman and a religious
In the early 1980s, Hashemi began to lobby for recreational
sports in the schools. Then she made the case for competition,
arguing that without it, sports lose meaning. It took a decade
before officials agreed to send women to the Asian Games. Only in
'96 did they send one to the Olympics. During the first Islamic
Women's Games, clerics denounced the spectacle of a woman, even
one hejab-ed to the hilt, bearing a torch through the streets of
Tehran; at the second Games, in '97, they raised no such
objections. "So it takes time," Hashemi says. "Technically and
culturally." In Farsi the term is kam kam--bit by bit.
Some fundamentalist clerics still believe that a woman who speaks
in public contravenes the word of the prophet. But two million
Iranian women participate in sports, compared to perhaps 12,000
before the revolution. Demand overwhelms the few facilities from
which men are banned so women may swim, work out or play
volleyball or basketball, as women most anywhere else in the
world can do. Segregated sports have created a cohort of female
coaches and administrators, and attracted women from conservative
backgrounds who might not otherwise be willing to get in the
game. "Hejab," they insist, "is the source of our strength."
Change begets more change, kam kam. In Chitgar Park on the
outskirts of Tehran, a newlywed couple ignores the sign that says
WOMEN ARE NOT TO RIDE BICYCLES IN THE PRESENCE OF MEN, so he
might teach her the elements of two-wheeling. Hashemi predicts
that kayaking will be the next sport to send an Iranian woman to
the Olympics, and the national women's flatwater team is billeted
at a training camp for four weeks, a period away from home that,
only a few years earlier, husbands or fathers would have never
permitted. Women are still barred from watching men play soccer,
but at a basketball game between the under-23 men's teams of Iran
and Syria, female spectators cheer from their quarantine in the
Yet some believe Hashemi walks her narrow road all too
deliberately. One such dissenter can be found on a Friday in
Mellat Park in north Tehran. Wearing what is known as "bad
hejab," Mahin Gorji plays volleyball with male colleagues from
the sports newspaper for which she works. She could not have done
this before the astonishing election, in 1997, of reformist
president Mohammad Khatami. For cavorting with men to whom she
isn't related, the police would have reprimanded Gorji. But the
reformists, supported overwhelmingly by the people, and the
clerics, whose hidebound views still prevail, are in a standoff.
So people test the law, and if there's no backlash they ignore
it, like pedestrians at a gridlocked intersection.
Gorji had been a first-division volleyball player, but her female
coach, a moonlighting schoolteacher, only knew so much. So Gorji
asked a male coach to help her train in private. He said no. She
then trained on her own but messed up her knee and had to retire
from elite-level sport. Now in her early 30s, she is left to bat
around a ball in the park. "In sport you should be able to
compare yourself to other countries," says Gorji, "but with this
way we have in Iran, we can't. And if we can't train with the
men, why can't we at least go to the stadium and watch them play,
so we can learn?"
From satellite TV she knows of the World Cup champion U.S.
women's soccer team. But does she know of Boulmerka? Does she
know that Boulmerka won an Olympic gold medal, only to be
denounced and threatened for doing so, and that she now packs
heat? Mahin Gorji is a sportswriter, but she says, "I did not
know of this woman. Thank you for telling me this."
Deborah Gyurcsek practiced gymnastics as a little girl. She ran
the sprints as a teenager. Then, just before she turned 20, her
imagination kindled to a hybrid of those two disciplines. She
watched the men who pole-vaulted, and eventually she began to
imitate them. A Uruguayan track official soon rebuked her: "You
women should vault in the circus!"
Within months, at the '99 South American championships, that same
official was hanging a bronze medal around Gyurcsek's neck. Seven
weeks ago she cleared the qualifying standard for Sydney,
punching her ticket for track and field's big top.
Before Sydney, Uruguay had produced only 16 female Olympians, and
the situation hasn't improved. In 1992 the country sent 23
athletes to the Games, all of them men. In '96, only two women
were among the 14 sent. In Uruguay the dictates of Latin culture
are discouraging enough to female athletes, and financial support
for athletes of both sexes flows fitfully. As a result a woman's
qualifying for the Games is left more or less to chance. Swimmer
Serrana Fernandez and long jumper Monica Falcioni will also go to
Sydney, but each has had to abandon her sport at least once
during her career. Like Gyurcsek, who had lost both parents to
cancer by the time she turned 16, all are uncommonly responsible
for their own success. If a Uruguayan woman chooses to stand out
in sports, she will do so in defiance of the media images that
make their way over the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires, where
women compete to see who can land the youngest boyfriend.
Were Uruguay ever to send women to the Olympics in a team sport,
that sport ought to be soccer. The Rio de la Plata is the
Euphrates of the South American game, and Uruguay's three million
people look back with disbelieving pride at World Cups won in
1930 and '50. Make a gift of a doll to a working-class girl still
innocent of society's expectations, and she may rip off the head
to kick it around. But soccer is Uruguay's most sacred male
preserve. The female version has existed formally only since
1996. While boys begin playing "baby football" from age five, the
organized game remains unavailable to girls younger than 14. The
president of Montevideo's most famous soccer club, Penarol, has
vowed that so long as he remains in office there will be no
Penarol women's team. "When I tell a man I play soccer, he will
clutch at his heart," says a member of one of the few women's
teams, River Plate.
So the River Plate women routinely put up with indignities, such
as the recent publication in a Uruguayan tabloid of a doctored
picture of Brandi Chastain, the American player who doffed her
jersey after the U.S. won the 1999 World Cup. The newspaper had
added huge, naked breasts, and trumpeted its fakery with the
headline WELCOME FUTBOL FEMININO!
In the Muslim world, to please the mullahs, editors retouch more
clothing into the frame. In the Latin world, to please the
machistas, they add more flesh. To be a sportswoman is to be
whipsawed between poles of male prescription.
If Iranian women must fight to practice competitive sport, and
all but the most determined Uruguayan women won't fight, some
women simply can't fight. In Botswana, culture hardly lets them.
Many there believe that muscles compromise a woman's femininity
and contact sports put her fertility at risk. In traditional
Setswana society, boys were out and active, herding cattle and
collecting firewood; girls cooked, and bore and cared for
children. The most popular sport for girls is a legacy of British
colonialism called netball, a prissy strain of basketball in
which dribbling is prohibited. It's as likely to find a place on
the Olympic program as snooker.
But more than anything, AIDS is making female sport in Botswana,
rare to begin with, less and less practicable. More than one in
every three women between 15 and 25 is HIV-positive, and the
percentage of women being infected is twice that of men. Even if
a woman dodges the epidemic, its ripple will touch her, for she
will be expected to look after the sick and take in the orphaned.
If the scourge continues at its current pace, demographers
predict that two thirds of the current population's 15-year-olds
will die. Of Botswana's failure ever to send a woman to the
Olympics, AIDS is a cause. Of the difficulty Batswana women have
in telling a man no, AIDS is a symptom.
In these bleak circumstances Goitsemodimo Dikinya runs. At 17,
she's already Botswana's female national champion in the 200 and
400 meters and a member of the 4x100 relay team that placed fifth
at the 1999 All-Africa Games. She has dreamed of running
competitively from the time she was 10, when she first watched
her elders do so and cried when she was told she was too young to
join them. In her home of Letlhakane, a village of mud huts and
thatched roofs, schoolmates post themselves at 100-meter
intervals when she trains, to urge her on her way.
Goitsemodimo is at a tipping point. She is fetching in the school
blues of Letlhakane Senior Secondary, and in the courtyard during
lunch hour boys send pointed flirtations her way. Will she get an
early start on motherhood, as so many of her peers do, within
marriage or without? Will AIDS--referred to as "snatch and bury"
in the local vernacular--make another victim of her? Or will she
fulfill the destiny augured by her selection in 1999 as her
country's Junior Sports Female of the Year? The answer rests in
her first name, which means God Knows.
Her mother bore 10 other children to her father, who used to work
in the diamond mines that blot the horizon outside Letlhakane
with mounds of tailings. Though the mines help give Botswana, a
country of 1.6 million people, a reasonably healthy economy, half
the population lives in poverty, and the percentage of
15-to-49-year-olds infected with HIV is the highest in the world.
Goitsemodimo will soon board a bus for Gaborone, for national
team training camp. A few years earlier two supervisors at a
similar sports camp took sexual liberties with three young women
in their charge. The scandal came to light not because the girls
stood up for themselves, but because the boy athletes, believing
the girls had been chosen for the camp as indulgences for their
supervisors, spoke up out of resentment.
Botswana could send a woman to the Olympics four years hence if
Goitsemodimo tips just so. Women could break through, too, if
karate finds a place on the Olympic program. So hopes Tebogo
Ngope, who lives with her widowed mother behind a security fence
in a bungalow in downtown Gaborone. Ngope won a silver medal at
the All-Africa Games and has helped achieve a fourth-place finish
for the Batswana women's team at the World Karate Championships.
"If you don't do a sport, it's easy to get involved in other
things, like drinking," says Ngope, who's 29. "And if you're
drinking, it's easy to get AIDS. A man will say that AIDS stands
for American Idea for Discouraging Sex. Or that he must sleep
with a virgin to be cured of the disease."
The only man in her life is her coach, who lives down the street
and has trained her since she was five. "I had a boyfriend," she
says, "but I caught him cheating on me, and I didn't want to
From behind her fence, Ngope fixes an eye on 2004 and Athens. If
karate is there, she says she will be, too. But she'll be 33, and
that is an optimistic life expectancy for Batswana women of her
The woman, a lawyer in Paris, holds up a copy of the Olympic
Charter streaked with fluorescent highlight marks. "This is our
Bible," Linda Weil-Curiel says. "We know it by heart. We are
asking the IOC to do nothing more than abide by its own charter."
The IOC governs itself by a document of thunderous idealism. The
charter holds that "any form of discrimination with regard to a
country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, sex
or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic
Movement." Those words accounted for South Africa's ostracism
from the Games for 21 years because of its racist policies. So in
1995 Weil-Curiel helped found a group, Atlanta Plus, to shame the
IOC into abiding by its own high-mindedness and banning those
countries that don't send women to the Games for whatever reason,
whether cultural or religiously sanctioned gender apartheid.
The IOC has sent observers to the Islamic Women's Games, and that
causes Weil-Curiel to bristle, for she believes such emissaries
legitimize segregation by sex. She bristles, too, at the IOC's
stance toward Afghanistan, a stance that she sees as muddled and
The Afghanis won't participate in these Olympics, and it's not
entirely clear why. The IOC has cited the failure of the United
Nations to recognize the Taliban. It has cited the ongoing civil
war, which has forced the national Olympic committee to flee the
country. Then late last month a member of the IOC's executive
board actually echoed the arguments of Atlanta Plus, rechristened
Atlanta-Sydney Plus, and asserted that Afghanistan would be
barred because the Taliban's treatment of women violates the
Olympic Charter. Yet why are the Saudis and the emirates of the
Persian Gulf not beyond the pale? Weil-Curiel asks. Though they
eventually rescinded the invitation, why did members of the IOC
invite to Sydney as observers two representatives of the Taliban,
who use sports stadiums to make public spectacle of torture and
In Switzerland, in her office in a chateau by Lake Geneva,
another woman speaks from a different perspective. Katia Mascagni
Stivachtis heads the IOC's department of women's advancement.
According to an analysis by the Los Angeles Times, the IOC
collects annual revenues of $900 million, mostly in TV and
sponsorship revenue, yet it puts barely 3% of its income into
training athletes and coaches. Scarcely a quarter of that
portion--$7.6 million--goes to the developing world, where women
most need help.
Mascagni Stivachtis says the IOC can only do so much, and she
disagrees with the call of Atlanta-Sydney Plus for a boycott. If
the IOC neglects to use the Olympic Charter as a cudgel, it's
only because the committee feels more urgent work must be done.
"One of our main duties is to develop sport for women," she says.
"In some countries we need more time to bring about change and
integration. If sport has to be practiced separately rather than
mixed, that's an entry point. We can't change culture overnight."
Mascagni Stivachtis admires what Faezeh Hashemi is doing in Iran:
"You can agree with her or not. But to achieve something you must
have ambition, a vision and be willing to fight. I think she is
Touran Shadpour wears industrial-strength hejab--the chador, the
tentlike black wrap that preserves the female form as the mystery
the mullahs prefer. A lecturer in physical education at a college
in Tehran, she produces a tattered copy of the official program
from a long-ago World Track and Field Championships. She opens to
an inside page, careful to fold back the program's cover so that
it obscures a photo of her at age 25, hair presumably flowing,
neck presumably ripe. But the text alongside the photo she leaves
unobscured, and it reveals that in 1977 she was among the best
female track and field athletes in Asia.
Two years later the revolution fixed Shadpour's personal bests in
amber. She never competed again. She is still the Iranian women's
record holder in the 100 and 200 meters.
"I hope that someday my records will fall," she says. "I hope to
see one of my students break them."
Though Samaranch says "the problem of [female] participation has
been solved," it is not solved.
A Uruguayan track official shouted at Gyurcsek, "You women
should vault in the circus!"
Even if a Botswanan woman dodges AIDS, she'll be expected to
look after the sick and orphaned.
In 1995, Weil-Curiel helped found a group to ban those countries
that don't send women to the Games.
"We need more time to bring about change and integration," says
the IOC's Mascagni Stivachtis.