The Olympics is a symbolic victory for Saudi Arabian women, but let’s not get carried away

Uncomfortable questions must continue to be asked about the treatment of women’s sport.

Simply by entering the Olympic stadium for the opening ceremony, two Saudi Arabian women made history. The inclusion of Saudi Arabia alongside female athletes from Brunei and Qatar means that, for the first time since the modern Olympics began, every country will be represented by at least one woman.

For this and many other reasons, the 2012 Olympic Games has all of the ingredients to be the best for women, ever. There are more events for women, more medals on offer and the best female representation of women we have ever seen.

The Olympics will shine a spotlight on female athleticism this summer – celebrating women’s achievements and inspiring women to get more active. Our Go Girl campaign demands that this continue long after the games so that women’s sport is finally given the recognition it deserves.

Yet, in some areas of the world the barriers to participation are insurmountably high. Women have been able to participate in the Olympics since 1900, but it is only now that women from Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been given this opportunity. In Saudi Arabia there is almost no tradition of female participation in sport and it was unclear until a few weeks ago whether Saudi women would be prevented from competing at all.

The Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF) called on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to uphold the Olympic charter, which states 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.” We told the Saudis that sending a woman to compete as a neutral would be nothing more than a token gesture, completely at odds with the Olympic spirit. We celebrated when the decision to send female athletes was reached but recognised that it was a small step in a much longer journey.

Symbolic, yes. Revolutionary? Perhaps not.

The restrictions on Saudi women participating in sport in their country meant that it would have been impossible to find a suitably qualified athlete on home soil. Sarah Attar, who will be representing the county in the 800m, lives and trains in southern California. She has spent very little time in Saudi Arabia, where she would be unable to compete in public.

By contrast judo competitor Wodjan Shaherkani, has never stepped foot outside of the country. She is coached by her father in private and, with just a blue belt to her name, is woefully, and perhaps dangerously, under-qualified to compete at an international level. They are at the games thanks to the IOC's Principle of Universality, which says that a small number of non-qualified competitors can be sent to compete in the Olympics.

Squaring the appearance of Attar and Shaherkani with the deep societal barriers faced by women in Saudi Arabia is a troubling conundrum. It is a huge leap forward that the girls have been accepted as members of a team of elite athletes. But significant barriers remain.

The athletes are competing under strict sharia conditions. Both are commanded to wear “suitable clothing during competition” and will reportedly be accompanied by a “guardian” to accompany them at all at times. There were doubts over whether Shaherkani would be able to compete at all after a disagreement between the International Judo Federation and the Saudi’s over whether the wearing of a headscarf would be allowed.

Both athletes have been subjected to disturbing online abuse after daring to participate in the opening ceremony. The hashtag “Prostitutes of the Olympics” was circulating on the social networking site Twitter late last week in reference to the two women. With Shaherkani competing on Friday it remains to be seen how much worse the abuse will get. 

The inclusion of Attar and Shaherkani at the very least shines a spotlight on the sort of discrimination faced by women in Saudi Arabia. It sets a precedent of women’s participation, which will be difficult for the Saudi’s to reverse. But, we must not allow the international community to consider their inclusion in the games mission accomplished.

Uncomfortable questions must continue to be asked about the treatment of women’s sport - both at home and abroad.

As cyclist Lizzie Armitstead pointed out after her silver medal victory on Sunday, sexism remains an issue even in the western world, where women’s sport is underfunded and overlooked by the media. Online abuse is not reserved for Saudi competitors. Team GB weightlifter Zoe Smith has complained about internet trolls who have criticised her for participating in a "male" sport. While none of this compares with an outright ban on public participation, failing to make the case for equal treatment of female athletes at home certainly doesn’t help the international community’s case when pushing for better treatment of women’s sport abroad.

Our research shows that female role models are essential for inspiring women to become more active. Participating in sport makes girls more likely to achieve educational and career goals, avoid teenage pregnancy and develop greater body confidence. Making sport more accessible to women therefore goes hand in hand with the achievement of a more equal, democratic and progressive society.

Attar and Shaherkani should feel very proud to take their place in history.

But, London 2012 can only be considered a true success if it marks the beginning of a shift in attitudes towards women’s sport the world over.

This must be the true legacy of the Olympic Games.

Sue Tibballs is the chief executive of the Women's Sport and Fitness Federation

Sarah Attar of Saudi Arabia carries her country's flag during the Opening Ceremony. Photograph: Getty Images
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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.