All Women Deserve a Sporting Chance by Martha Burk, Director of the Corporate Accountability Project

All Women Deserve a Sporting Chance
The International Olympic Committee should put its money where its mouth is when it comes to women and sports.

By Martha Burk

Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the law prohibiting discrimination in educational programs receiving federal tax dollars, including sports.

Every year, the Secretary of Education and countless women's organizations commemorate the program's success, citing many impressive statistics. Since the law passed in 1972, female participation in sports at NCAA member institutions has increased six-fold. At the high school level it's even better--girls' participation has increased ten-fold.

But we can do better.

This year I want to lay down a challenge to every advocate, every group, and the government itself to go beyond proclamations and statistics. Title IX's 39th anniversary isn't until June, enough time to craft a campaign and celebrate a true victory--one that will make a difference around the globe. Success will send a message of equality to women still under the dominance of religious governments that don't recognize females as full citizens of the world.

As the old saw goes, we need to get the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to women and sports. The Olympic charter states flatly that "the practice of sport is a human right," and "any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement."

That's a very clear statement--and the IOC has backed it up before. The Committee banned South Africa from the Olympic movement in 1964 over the country's racial apartheid and maintained the ban until 1992.

But oh my--how times have changed. In response to a New York Times inquiry last November about why Saudi Arabia is still allowed to ban female athletes, spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau exposed the organization's double standard. Underscoring that the IOC doesn't consider gender apartheid in sports on a par with racial apartheid, she said "the IOC does not give ultimatums nor deadlines, but rather believes that a lot can be accomplished through dialogue."

Meanwhile, Saudi women's sports advocates are using the U.S. Title IX example to argue for change--and we need to give them a boost. If the IOC were to adhere to its charter and ban Saudi Arabia from the Olympic Games until it recognizes the human rights of women to participate, it would fast-forward progress and make a statement to the world that females are in fact equal citizens. No country can exclude athletes on the basis of race. It should be the same for gender.

What can the United States do? For starters, our lawmakers can weigh in. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) is chartered by Congress, meaning Congress has oversight. Hearings have been held in the past calling leaders on the carpet for poor management, possible corruption, and medal awards. Why not lean on the USOC to make its voice heard regarding the IOC's tolerance of gender apartheid? If we lead the way, other countries are bound to speak out. The IOC doesn't have to listen, but bad publicity and world pressure have worked before.

As the women who got Title IX enacted 39 years ago know, it took pushing every button they could find--legal, political, and moral. What better way to commemorate the anniversary than with Congressional hearings and a media campaign to change the outcomes for Saudi women--and their sisters worldwide in the bargain.

Martha Burk is a political psychologist, women's issues expert, and director of the Corporate Accountability Project for the National Council of Women's Organizations (NCWO).