Playing games with the rights of women
Every year, as August dawns, there are media murmurings about women’s rights and a rash of promises and remembrances. But though institutionalised apartheid is no longer, the position of women in South Africa and many parts of the world remains demonstrably unequal – in some cases worse than it was 20 or more years ago.
However, this year there was great irony in the murmurings being eclipsed by news of the awarding of the 2022 Winter Olympics to Beijing. And not only because China has a hardly sterling record for human – and women’s – rights.
In 1995, Beijing hosted what was claimed as a visionary agenda for women: The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. It was adopted by 189 countries.
According to the UN, this platform “imagines a world where each woman and girl can exercise her freedoms and choices, and realise all her rights, such as to live free from violence, to go to school, to participate in decisions and to earn equal pay for equal work”.
But for millions of women, this vision remains a mirage.
That the Olympic award went to Beijing has doubled the irony because of the history of this international competition. It started 119 years ago as an elitist and exclusively male preserve.
The fact that women now compete can also be attributed in substantial measure to the labour movement, not to the founding ethos of the modern Olympics.
A wealthy French nobleman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founded the modern Games. His vision of an Olympiad comprised uniting what he perceived to be the cultured – male and white – elite of the world across national boundaries.
All competitors, De Coubertin ruled, should be amateurs. As such, he ensured that the modern Games would also be exclusive on the basis of class. Working men who had neither the time to train nor the money for equipment were, in effect, excluded.
In the face of this class and gender bias, the labour movement in Europe and the US supported the establishment of an international “worker Games”. This was open to all, irrespective of gender, class, race or religion, and the first event was staged in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1921.
Ten years later, the workers’ summer Games in Vienna attracted 100 000 athletes and 250 000 spectators – on both counts more than the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. But by then, in Germany, Hitler and the Nazis were on the rise, promoting ultranationalism and the idea that a woman’s place was in the home as a housewife and baby producer.
Against widespread opposition, the Olympic Committee awarded Germany the 1936 Olympics and the Nazis introduced three innovations that still persist: the Olympic flame (symbolising burning out the filth of the world) and torch relay, along with national anthems instead of the single, unifying Olympic anthem.
Just as these symbols persist, so too, in different ways and in various parts of the world, do the nationalist and male chauvinist attitudes that accompanied them.
And since the Beijing Declaration, there have been a number of similar declarations of intent to bring about radical change. Most women of the world are still waiting. And this is what we should really be concerned about today – and every other day of the year.