Women Athletes Grapple for Olympic Equality
Atlanta Games will have more female participants than ever, but some see major roadblock in views of Islamic countries
ATLANTA — AT times when she trained on the roads of her native Algeria, 1992 Olympic medalist Hassiba Boulmerka learned first-hand what it was like to be branded a heretic. Because she ran in shorts instead of the traditional head-to-toe Muslim dress, the 1,500-meter gold-medalist was cursed, spat upon, and pelted with rocks by Islamic fundamentalists.
Ms. Boulmerka, who plans to compete in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, now trains in another country. She illustrates the struggles faced by aspiring women athletes from some Islamic nations.
Recently, a group of women from Europe calling themselves Atlanta Plus brought the issue to the fore when they asked the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ban countries, many of them Islamic, that don't allow female athletes on their teams.
The protest comes at a time when many women are hailing the progress their gender has made, while pointing up the long path they need to travel to achieve Olympic parity with men.
''Atlanta is going to offer more opportunities for women than ever before,'' says Donna de Varona, who won two gold medals in swimming in the 1964 Tokyo Games. But, she adds, ''especially internationally, there are a lot of attitudes that probably won't change in our lifetimes in some countries that don't recognize individual rights or freedoms.''
The Atlanta Games have slots for 3,779 women. That's more than a 20 percent increase over Barcelona, which featured about 3,000 women athletes. Seoul had 2,438 in 1988, and 1,620 competed in Los Angeles in 1984. In contrast, men have 6,500 slots in 1996.
The biggest coup for women in Atlanta is the addition of soccer and softball, a key reason for the increase in women participants. New team events in synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics have boosted numbers as well.
Ms. de Varona, a cofounder of the Women's Sports Foundation in New York, says opportunities to participate in the Olympics began to open up for women in the 1970s. The turning point came when the IOC allowed them to compete in the marathon in 1984.
Despite this progress, women in some Islamic countries still are barred from the Olympics. At the opening ceremonies of the Barcelona Games in 1992, several Frenchwomen noticed 34 all-male delegations. ''For the first time, South Africa was allowed to participate after lifting apartheid, and everyone seemed very happy,'' says Linda Weil-Curiel, a Paris attorney. ''But no one had noticed that many delegations were practicing a sort of apartheid against women. We decided we could not allow such discrimination to be practiced in Atlanta.''
Ms. Weil-Curiel and two other Frenchwomen created Atlanta Plus. They wrote to IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch asking the organization to ban countries from the 1996 Olympics that don't allow female athletes to compete. The IOC has responded that the Atlanta Plus campaign is an attack on a religion for political purposes.
Weil-Curiel denies the group is targeting Islam. She points to the Olympic Charter, which declares ''all discrimination ... for racial, religious, political, sexual or other reasons to be incompatible with the Olympic movement.'' ''If several countries on behalf of their religion ban women from sports, they should be excluded from the Olympic movement,'' she says.
But Anita DeFrantz, the only woman on the executive board of the IOC, says: ''I understand the large issue is very simple and clear. Every country should have women athletes. How do you go about doing that? I think there are ways ... but denouncing countries and banning them is not high on my list of solutions.''
Ms. DeFrantz says many of the 34 countries Atlanta Plus cites have no women on their teams for financial reasons. She says the IOC is trying to increase the involvement of women through programs such as a scholarship fund that helps women train outside their home countries if necessary.
In another program in the late 1980s, women from Islamic countries took part in discussions about the development of sports. ''We know there are problems, and we're trying to address the problems, but each piece of the large problem is different and needs to be addressed differently,'' DeFrantz says.
More women on the IOC board will speed women's progress, de Varona says. Until the late 1970s the 100-member organization, which now includes six women, was ''a rich European all-boys club,'' she says. The board needs to elect more women members because ''you need safety valves, and I think what happens is that issues aren't addressed, and you can't expect the few [women] members that are on the IOC to always bring those issues up,'' she continues. Members are elected for lifetime appointments.
DeFrantz, a bronze medalist in rowing in the 1976 Montreal games, says women who have had Olympic experiences need to stay involved with their sport.
''I think we women athletes who've had the opportunity have to give back, have to look out for the next generation,'' DeFrantz says. ''And you do that by getting involved in policymaking decisions. It's through the decisions that are made by a sport as it's governed that will make it more or less inclusive.''
Atlanta Plus is not giving up, either. The group has received pledges of support from women and men athletes around the world. It is sending letters to sponsors and sports federations asking them ''to open their eyes to this problem and take a position,'' Weil-Curiel says. ''We are only beginning.''