Hey International Olympic Committee-Your Words Are Not Enough!

This article was written by a member of the SheKnows Community. It has not been edited, vetted or reviewed by our editorial staff, and any opinions expressed herein are the writer’s own.

Nikki Dryden

By Nikki Dryden, Canadian Olympic Swimmer and Attorney. 

Sport, unlike anything else, brings the world together, has the power to change lives for the better, and is truly universal. “It has an almost unmatched role to play in promoting understanding, healing wounds, mobilizing support for social causes, and breaking down barriers”, says former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who believes that sport has the power to breakdown “myths and prejudices.” He also notes that athletes as well as sports organizations are critical in “unifying societies torn apart by conflict, tackling prejudices...and in breaking down gender inequality.”

Yet here we are in 2011 and women are not equal in the world of Olympic sport...not even close, and all 110 members of the International Olympic Committee (only 17% of whom are women) must be held accountable. Action, not words, must be demanded by athletes and coaches of the world, fans of Olympic sport, and corporate sponsors who lend their name to the Olympic movement. Without true gender equity in sport, the Olympic Games and the Olympic movement makes a mockery of women and their contributions to the world of sport. 

On Friday, once again, Ms. Anita DeFrantz head of the Women's Commission at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) named the three countries that have yet to send women athletes to the Olympic Games: Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar. But we have heard this before. She said it in 2010 too – but at the 2010 Olympic Games 19 countries sent men-only Olympic teams to Vancouver. 

The list of inequities does not end there. In addition to the many nation-states who do not send women athletes, there still exists unequal sports and events for women athletes at the Olympic Games, there are 
an unequal numbers of women participants, an unenforceable sex harassment and abuse policy, and discrimination in gender testing. Add into the mix a disturbing lack of women on executive sporting bodies and in the coaching ranks, and what you have is an IOC and Olympic Movement that does not care about women in reality, but pretends to do so in theory. 

Olympic Charter and IOC Send Mixed Messages

Growing up as a young athlete in Victoria, Canada I dreamed of going to the Olympic Games and standing atop the podium. I watched every track and field event at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, recording the results in a special edition copy of Sports Illustrated. I even wrote a glowing report about the Olympic Games, including the founding father of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin. When I turned to swimming, my dreams of gold passed to the pool, but when I actually made the Olympics and competed in them twice, I never realized I had agreed to be led, governed, and judged by the members of the IOC. 

I just thought I was swimming, but really I was accepting the Olympic Charter rules and thus reinforcing its status as international customary sports law. By the mere process of having a dream and achieving it, I had contributed to the IOC's status as “chosen agent of the international legal order” of sports. Had I instead chosen in 1992 to read Andrew Jennings book, The Lords of the Rings, I am not sure if I would have accepted this deal. You see no one tells you growing up with dreams of Olympic glory that Mr. de Coubertin did not think my dream worthy. In fact his opinion was that the Olympic Games should “be reserved for the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism with internationalism as a base, loyalty as a means, arts for its setting, and female applause as its reward." And I certainly was not told that the IOC systematically discriminates against my gender. 

The Olympic Charter, tweaked in 2007, is based on gender equity principles, but the actions of the IOC and the Olympic Movement continuously discriminate based on gender, violating both their own rules and those of the international legal system. 

The IOC's role and mission is to promote ethics in sport, and the Olympic Charter lays out specific roles for the IOC, including:

-Placing sport at the service of humanity and promoting peace;
-Acting against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement;
-Implementing the principle of equality of men and women in sport at all levels and structures; and
-Promoting a positive legacy from the Olympics to the host cities/countries.

The IOC has tremendous power in world sport. Because of the structure of the Olympic Movement all Olympic sports report up the ladder to the supreme authority, the IOC. This means that the IOC in effect touches every person associated with an Olympic sport from the top Olympic athletes and judges down to volunteer parents and coaches of the local swim club. While international sports federations and national sport organizations control the day to day life of these sports, the IOC has the power to withdraw recognition of an international federation or suspend a National Olympic Committee if its actions threaten the Olympic Movement.

Thus the IOC acts like the UN Security Council, only instead of states, its members are individuals accountable to no one. Undemocratically elected and non-transparent, even members of the Olympic Movement like myself and other Olympic athletes, coaches, fans and sports administrators all around the world, have nowhere to challenge abuses of power. The IOC is made up of individuals who do not represent their countries and together they form a non-governmental organization with legal status in Switzerland whose purpose is to “fulfill the mission, role and responsibilities as assigned to it by the Olympic Charter.” However, the IOC also writes the Olympic Charter. The document has extensive information about electing host cities and electing members, but there is very little about how the IOC checks its own actions. Acting as executive, legislative, and judiciary, the IOC is judge and executioner of all things Olympic. The trouble is, who agreed to this and how do we get ourselves out of it?

The IOC's History of Discrimination Against Women 

In 1981 the IOC started to “work on women's involvement at the leadership level...” But leading international sports law scholars have accurately described the IOC membership as “wealthy, male, elitist, aging and Western European.” As of July 2011 just 19 of 110 IOC members are women, three of whom are princesses. Only one woman sits on the powerful Executive Committee and the Women's Commission wields no real power. 

At the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics only 42% of athletes were women and 4 countries: Brunei, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait did not send women to Beijing. In fact, Brunei and Saudi Arabia say it is for "cultural and religious reasons" and do not allow women to participate in the Olympic Games, period. At the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics 19 countries did not send women (the percentage of participants is not readily available), while at the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics only 38% of athletes were women and 22 countries did not send women. 

Ms. DeFrantz has an uphill battle unless the world demands action to back her up. There are three IOC princes from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. HRH Prince Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani from Qatar and HRH Prince Nawaf Faisal Fahd Abdulqziz from Saudi Arabia both joined the IOC in 2002. Prince Nawaf's father King Fahd was also an IOC member. Neither man has apparent sporting abilities. HRH Ahmed Al Fahad Al-Sabah from Kuwait joined in 1992. He led a failed attempt to coach the national soccer team and heads the National Security Agency in Kuwait. Brunei has no IOC members.

The IOC should be doing more than pressing or urging these countries to send women to the 2012 Games in London and 2014 Games in Sochi. Sending both men's and women's teams, in more equal numbers, to the Olympic Games should be mandatory. Countries who do not comply, every year, should be banned and IOC members whose countries are guilty of gender discrimination should be kicked off the IOC, even if they are “royalty.”

The sporting world did not put up with racial discrimination, so why do we tolerate gender discrimination? In 1968, 40 nations threatened to boycott the Olympics unless the invitation to South Africa was rescinded by the IOC. The IOC voted to withdraw South Africa's invitation to compete in the Mexico City Games. Why are women's rights not treated the same as the rights of black Africans? 

Women are treated like second-class citizens in Saudi Arabia, unable to drive, vote, or hold office. Why does the IOC and the Olympic Movement allow Saudi Arabia and in particular, Prince Nawaf, to continue this discrimination and violation of basic human rights in the sporting community? 

Sporting Leadership Lacks Women in Decision-Making Roles

In 1996, a Working Group on Women in sport was created within the IOC. Their first conference resolutions called for multiple initiatives to promote the role of women in sport, including calling on the IOC to attain “an equal number of events for women and men on the Olympic Programme,” that IFs and NOCs “create special committees or working groups” with at least 10% women to create plans to promote women in sport, and for the IOC to end gender testing. 

By 2000, the IOC Conference could only reiterate their lame goals and in 2004, the Conference upped the ante to 20% women in leadership positions. Sadly, by 2008 the Dead Sea Plan of Action took a tone of desperation, feeling more like the Dead Sea than a plan of action as once again, participants repeated their pleas for change. “The conference stresses the need for the IOC to remind participating NOCs, NPCs and IFs to ensure that the composition of their teams, team leadership and technical delegations reflects IOC policy on gender equality. The Chairperson of the IOC Women and Sport Commission is requested to propose to the 120th IOC Session in Beijing in August 2008 the mandatory requirement for all NOCs to have women on their executive committees, and that this be an enforceable requirement.” 

In 2011, the IOC can't even met their own targets. But they do much worse, they also violate international law. This and more will be examined in Part II of the IOC and Gender Inequality to be published later this week. 

Take Action Now!

In North America: 

Call Ms. DeFrantz at her office in Los Angeles (323)-730-4613;
Call Ms. Beckie Scott, IOC member from Canada at the Speakers Bureau at 1-800-353-4453;
Call Mr. Dick Pound, IOC member from Canada at his law firm Stikeman Elliot at (514) 397-3037 or email him at rpound@stikeman.com;
Call Ms. Angela Ruggiero, IOC member from the US at her agent at (212) 307-5128; and 
Call Mr. James Easton, IOC member from the US at his company Easton Sports at 800-347-3901 

Everyone can demand the IOC take action against gender discrimination today bycalling IOC President Count Jacques Rogge at +41 21 621 61 11. Ask for the expulsion from the IOC of members Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia and Prince Al Thani of Qatar. Ask why we tolerate gender discrimination and inequity. Demand gender equity be contingent on membership in the Olympic Movement. 

It is 2011 and if the IOC really wants to show it cares about women athletes and women around the world, it must take decisive action today to end discrimination against half the world's population. Enough is enough. 

Nikki Dryden swam in the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games and is a human rights and immigration attorney. She is also a member of FairPlay 2015, which is working for gender equity at the 2015 Pan American Games to be held in Toronto, Canada. 

More from living

by Kenzie Mastroe | a day ago
by Julie Sprankles | 2 days ago
by Colleen Stinchcombe | 5 days ago
by Ashley Papa | 7 days ago
by Colleen Stinchcombe | 7 days ago
by Kenzie Mastroe | 9 days ago
by Kristine Cannon | 10 days ago
by Fairygodboss | 12 days ago
by Colleen Stinchcombe | 13 days ago
by Michelle Maffei | 14 days ago
by Colleen Stinchcombe | 16 days ago
by Kristine Cannon | 16 days ago
by Colleen Stinchcombe | 20 days ago
by Sarah Long | 21 days ago
by Kristine Cannon | 22 days ago
by Colleen Stinchcombe | 22 days ago