Air rifle shooter Bahiya al-Hamad will be Qatar's flag bearer. (Qatar Olympic Committee / July 12, 2012)
Olympic Gender Gap Closing: But that may not betoken wider gains for Islamic women athletes
On the surface, it looks as if the past 48 hours has brought nothing but good news for women athletes.
*Qatar, which never has had a female Olympian, announced its London Summer Games flag bearer will be a woman athlete, shooter Bahiya al-Ahmad. She will be one of three women on the 2012 Qatari team.
*The International Olympic Committee announced that Saudi Arabia, which never has had a woman athlete in the Olympics, will have two in London. The IOC announcement also said Brunei will have its first female Olympian, meaning the three gender holdout countries all have conceded women athletes exist.
*And, in announcing its 530-member team for London, the U.S. Olympic Committee noted it will be sending more women (269) than men (261) to the Games for the first time ever.
Beneath the surface, the news isn't quite as good as it seems.
Let's deal with the USOC first because its case simply requires context, not criticism.
The USOC long has been admirably supportive of its women athletes. Its leaders clearly acknowledge how much of Team USA's recent success owes to women, as its chief executive, Scott Blackmun, pointed out again during a Wednesday speech to the National Sports Marketing Network in Chicago.
At the 2008 Beijing Games, the U.S. won 53 medals in both men's and women's sports and four in mixed sports, equestrian and sailing.
But the reasons there are more women than men on the 2012 U.S. team aren't entirely positive.
*The elimination of softball and baseball from the Olympic program alone accounts for the change. At the 2008 Olympics, the U.S. baseball team had a 24-man roster, the softball team a 15-woman roster. The United States would be thrilled to have nine extra men if it meant both sports still were part of the Games.
*The unexpected failure of the U.S. men to qualify in soccer eliminated 18 male athletes.
*On the positive side, the unexpected qualification of the U.S. women in field hockey added 16 female athletes. The inclusion of women's boxing on the OIympic program for the first time brought in three more U.S. women.
And before moving on, let's give the IOC some props on the issue of women athletes, even if its record of women in leadership positions remains abysmal: only 19 of 105 IOC members and two of 14 IOC executive board members are women.
But in the last 40 years, the percentage of women athletes in the Olympics has more than tripled, from 14.8 percent in Munich to an expected near 45 percent in London. At the Centennial 1996 Games in Atlanta, 26 countries had yet to include women athletes. After London, there will be none.
In the cases of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei, though, the more compelling question is whether their female Olympians will be more than tokens to appease critics of the gender discrimination against female athletes in their Islamic countries.
Human Rights Watch is understandably skeptical about the Saudis, who are sending a jukoka and a track and field athlete.
"Allowing women to compete under the Saudi flag in the London Games will set an important precedent," said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. "But without policy changes to allow women and girls to play sports and compete within the kingdom (Arabia), little can change for millions of women and girls deprived of sporting opportunities. . .
"Female participation in the London Games will only have impact if it begins to level the playing field for women in the kingdom. Now is the time for the International Olympic Committee to use its leverage and lay down concrete plans for female sports to girls schools, women’s sports clubs, and competitive tournaments."
Qatar having a woman flag-bearer likely is no indication of a real new commitment to female athletes in the country that has vainly bid for the 2016 and 2020 Summer Games.
In 1996, the only woman on Iran's 18-member Olympic team - its first female Olympian after the country's Islamic revolution - was its flag bearer, rifle shooter Lida Fariman. In the seven winter and summer Olympics that followed, just six of Iran's 133 Olympians have been women. And Iran's restrictive dress code for women, which many other Islamic countries also mandate, means its female athletes can compete only in sports where they can be covered head-to-toe, which doesn't exactly create a level playing field.
For nations like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran, the message it is sending by sending women athletes to the Olympics will remain decidedly mixed until proven otherwise.
You Go, Girl.
But not too far.