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Mixed reviews for Olympic leaders on gender equity

Aug. 12, 2008, 9:11 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Women are competing at the 2008 Games in record numbers, yet the Olympic movement remains under fire on the gender front - accused of failing to reduce male dominance in its own ranks and tolerating countries which exclude women from their teams.

Of more than 11,000 athletes assembled in Beijing, 42 percent are women. That's up from less than 26 percent in 1988, and illustrates the success of an aggressive campaign since then by the International Olympic Committee to move toward gender equity.

The IOC itself, and its affiliates, haven't done nearly as well, falling short of their own goals.

Of the IOC's 110 members, 16 are women - and only one serves on the powerful 15-member executive board. A sizable majority of the 205 national Olympic committees have executive bodies that are at least 80 percent male, and only two of the 35 Olympic sports federations have women as presidents.

"I'm deeply disappointed," said Anita DeFrantz, the senior U.S. member of the IOC and chair of its Women and Sport Commission.

"I don't understand why we haven't been successful," she said. "I'm reviewing everything to determine what it is that's blocking us."

One fundamental problem is that sports administration in many nations remains an old boys club. DeFrantz said change will be too slow unless the men in power commit themselves to grooming women as leaders.

DeFrantz also is among many advocates of women's sports who have run out of patience with Saudi Arabia, the last major nation that bars women from its Olympic teams. She wants the Saudis - who have fielded a 17-man squad in Beijing - to be excluded from the 2012 Games in London unless they end their males-only policy.

"Perhaps after these games it will be clear they will be the only outliers and have to allow women to compete," DeFrantz said. "The women in that country deserve the opportunity."

Critics contend the IOC is failing to adhere to its own charter, which says discrimination on the basis of sex is "incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement." They suggest that a double-standard is at work, with the IOC more tolerant of gender bias than it was of the institutionalized racial segregation that triggered South Africa's exclusion from the Olympics during the apartheid era.

However, many IOC members may be reluctant to bar the Saudis from London.

"I'd be surprised and disappointed if we took such draconian action," said senior IOC member Kevan Gosper. "All that would do is have the athletes of that country suffer."

Apartheid "was considered a crime against humanity," Gosper said. "I don't think that can be considered parallel to the effort to bring women into absolutely equal gender balance."

Whether Saudi Arabia changes on its own remains to be seen. The government is generally wary of angering conservative Islamic clergy, yet the issue of women in sports has been raised recently in the Saudi media and reportedly has been debated by a high-level government advisory council.

Saudi Arabia currently bans sports and physical education classes in state-run girls' schools. Women have discreetly formed a few sports teams on their own, but the level of competition is considered a world away from Olympic caliber.

Qatar joined Saudi Arabia this year in sending an all-male team to Beijing. But several Arab countries that formerly excluded women have relented - Oman, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, for example. The UAE last week chose a woman as its Olympic flagbearer - Sheikha Maitha Almaktoum, a royal family member competing in taekwondo.

Ebrahim Abdul Malek, general secretary of the UAE's Olympic committee, told a local newspaper, The National, that this was a message to "the entire Gulf region and the whole Arab world. ... everyone, man and woman, should simply work hard at their sport. There are no limits at all."

Among the other Muslim women competing is Robina Muqimyar from war-torn Afghanistan, which was expelled from the Olympics when the women-oppressing Taliban was in power.

Muqimyar is back for a second Olympics after becoming one of the first two Afghan women ever to compete in the games four years ago.

"I want to change the history of Afghanistan," she said then. "I want the other women to watch me and see me and follow me."

Even within the realm of Olympic competition, there are some limits for women. Two sports - ski-jumping and boxing - remain male-only despite vigorous lobbying by the women who compete in them.

Nine women ski jumpers have filed suit against the organizers of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, alleging that excluding their sport is a violation of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees gender equality. The IOC insists women's ski jumping is too embryonic to be included - its first world championship isn't until next year.

The IOC rejected women's boxing for Beijing three years ago - in part because of concerns about the International Amateur Boxing Association that weren't related to gender. There may be a new bid next year to get women's boxing on the program for London.

Underrepresentation of women on the IOC may be the problem slowest to fade.

"It's different from running a race or playing a team event," Gosper said. "You don't have to be voted into a gold medal. But in administration, most positions are obtained by voting, and if you come from a base where it's almost been 100 percent masculine, it's going to be a more tedious and challenging process."