Every Olympics throws up its own political controversy: black power; the Middle East; Soviet imperialism. This year, the cause celebre is sexual discrimination in Islamic countries stories, this one being about the competitors from Islamic countries And I think it needs this fifth line
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At the opening ceremony of the first Islamic Women's Games, held in Tehran in 1993, the torchbearer was an 18-year-old Iranian runner. It was a proud moment for Padideh Bolourizadeh: she had grown up in the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution, when Khomeini and the mullahs took control and put an end to, among other things, the relatively liberal attitude towards women and sport that had existed under the Shah. Had her mother not been a sportswoman it is unlikely that she would have made it beyond playground races. For her ceremonial lap of the stadium that day she wore a customised hijab: cumbersome, ankle-length and hooded, it concealed all but her face.

Among the cheering crowds was her father, seeing her circle a track for the first time. Like all the other men there, including coaches, he had to leave before the competition began. Only once they had gone did the athletes throw off their hijab to reveal the more familiar Lycra sports gear. Although she didn't win any medals, Bolourizadeh broke the Iranian high-jump record, which had stood since pre-revolution days. She also took eight seconds off her own time in the 400 metres, her main event, but again she didn't come close to victory. In truth she didn't have a chance.

The summits of modern athletics take years to scale, and even at 18 Bolourizadeh was already too old to have any realistic prospect of catching up with the world's best. The campaigning work of President Rafsanjani's 31-year- old daughter, Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, to re-establish women's sport in Iran, had come too late; and, in any case, still had a long way to go. Bolourizadeh never had a professional coach or structured training programme. The best resources were reserved for men; women athletes had to make do with limited access to the Tehran stadium during "women only" periods. Training outside the stadium was not an option. When asked if she would be back trying for a medal at the next Women's Games in 1997, Bolourizadeh said no. "Someone else, maybe. For me, I think, it's just too late." No one even bothered to ask her about the Olympics. Iran had no women in their team at Barcelona, and will be sending only one, a member of the shooting team who will wear her hijab, to Atlanta.

The OlympicCharter is an inspiring document. "The goal of the Olympic Movement," it declares, "is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practised without any discrimination of any kind." On this point it is emphatic: "Any form of discrimination," it advises, "with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, sex or otherwise, is incompatible with the Olympic Movement." Fine words; fine sentiments. Yet many of the signatories to this document do not see them as incompatible with the fact that they will not allow women athletes to represent them in the Olympic Games. For many years, this apparent contradiction has gone largely unnoticed in the wider world. No longer.

For the past four years, an organisation called Atlanta Plus has been lobbying the International Olympic Committee to address the issue, calling for the exclusion from the Atlanta games of all countries that discriminate on the grounds of sex. These are almost exclusively Muslim countries, which, while they do not usually object to women taking part in sport per se, consider it unacceptable for women to compete in Western sports clothes in the company or presence of men. Atlanta Plus's argument is that there is no difference between the racial discrimination of apartheid South Africa - which was boycotted for 20 years - and that being perpetrated against the women athletes (and potential athletes) from Islamic countries.

In some ways, Padideh Bolourizadeh was lucky: in Iran these days, sport for women is positively encouraged, if segregated and constricted. Had she been born a Muslim in Saudi Arabia, she wouldn't even have been allowed to compete in a school sports day. In Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf States, apart from the privileged few with their own private gyms, women do not take part in any physical education. And even where Muslim women athletes have broken through on to the world arena, generally from the more liberal Islamic states of north Africa, their sporting successes have often provoked criticism, condemnation and intimidation from their more fundamentalist compatriots.

Four years ago, when the 26-year-old Algerian runner Hassiba Boulmerka returned home as gold medal winner of the 1,500 metres at Barcelona, although acclaimed internationally as a golden girl of sport, her reception was muted. The previous year she had returned in triumph with a gold medal from the World Athletics Championships in Tokyo. She was only the second Arabic woman to take gold at a major event and on her return to Algeria on that occasion received a hero's welcome; she was awarded the country's highest honour, the Medaille du Merite National. A few months later, however, the mood at home had changed. The Imams of the Islamic Salvation Front had pronounced a kofr - a public condemnation handed down from the national mosque which expressed their disapproval. Algeria's President Chadi Benjedid was criticised too, for bending to kiss her on the forehead at the award ceremony. Boulmerka stood accused of "running half naked for all the world to see"; but the real problem was that, in winning, she had become a symbol of what women could do when unconstrained by the rules of Islam. This made her a threat: a fact that was underlined when her picture was used by anti-fundamentalist campaigners in the national election that was going on at the time alongside the slogan "She Did Not Need A Proxy to Win", an attack on men's right to vote in their wives' names.

There was a time, when she was able to do her training with relative impunity in the woods near her home in Constantine, at altitude, 300km east of Algiers. A wiry, diminutive woman, she was nicknamed "the little gazelle of Constantine" by sympathetic locals. But even then there were insults and harassment from what she called "fundamentalist delinquents", and the fundamentalist revival has come a long way since then. She could only take it for so long. Nowadays, when she is in Algeria, she is restricted to training within the safety of a stadium. She has remained faithful to Algiers and has always maintained that she will continue to live there "no matter who the rulers are". In practice, she spends much of her time training undisturbed in Cuba and competing abroad. Her athletic base, if not her heart, is in Italy, home of her agent, Enrico Dionisi.

Her decision to keep a home in Algeria - in contrast to other Algerian sportswomen, who have crossed the sea to France - has made her more cautious; some would say it has silenced her. Once, she was openly critical of the political situation, describing her victory in Tokyo as "a cry from the heart for every Algerian woman, every Arabic woman". Now she is reluctant to incite the wrath of those who could make her life difficult and refuses to be drawn on the issue of discrimination. "Algeria is a simple country," she said after her Olympic win in 1992. "Any problems we have are the same as all countries."

Boulmerka is clearly exceptional, not only as a runner but as an individual. The fourth of seven children from a working-class family, her traditional background gives few clues to her determination. Her father worked in France for 18 years sending back regular cheques, which meant, Boulmerka has said: "He had a different mentality, a European outlook." Like other women of her generation, Boulmerka's mother did not go to school. Boulmerka was luckier and it was a schoolteacher who discovered and nurtured her special gifts. She remains a devout Muslim, but takes a pragmatic approach to sport. "You cannot wear the hajib in the stadium, just as you cannot wear shorts in the mosques. Each place has rules of its own." In a country where women have been stoned for wearing short skirts - and tens of thousands of people have been killed in the battle between the government and the Islamic Salvation Front - even a diplomatic pronouncement like this is courageous.

Dionisi, Boulmerka's agent since 1989, is also keen to play down the problems of the past. "She has only the same problems that all Muslim women have. She has had problems because she was seen as leading the process against discrimination in certain countries. The dress issue is a superficial thing. The problem is that she is a modern woman and outspoken, and in her culture this is a problem. What counts is that she has also shown that despite the situation in Algeria she has not been blocked from succeeding. The situation is getting better. Algeria is looking forward. We should be looking at countries like Turkey, which are considered part of Europe. Where are the female Turkish athletes? I think in all my life I have only seen one woman runner from Turkey, and this is Europe we're talking about."

IN 1992, Anne Marie Lizim, then Minister for European Affairs in Belgium, was on holiday with a friend, Annie Sugier, a nuclear scientist and respected French feminist. Relaxing in front of the television, they tuned into the spectacular opening ceremony of the Barcelona Olympics - and saw something that so shocked them that it has changed the course of their subsequent lives. What the two women had noticed was the simple fact that 35 of the countries competing in the 1992 Olympics had no female members in their teams. Some were poorer nations who could barely afford to send anyone, but many, like Kuwait, Qatar, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran, were prosperous Muslim nations which excluded women simply on the basis that women may not compete at mixed events dressed in clothing likely to arouse male competitors. Iran, it later emerged, even refused to allow a Spanish woman athlete to share in carrying the Iranian placard at the ceremony. This, felt Sugier and Lizim, was blatant discrimination, and the IOC, by turning a blind eye to it, was as good as condoning it.

"They phoned me there and then," remembers Linda Weil-Curiel, a friend and human rights lawyer who was to become the third founding member of Atlanta Plus, "and we went to work almost immediately."

Weil-Curiel's legal practice is based in Paris, where she has worked on a number of projects with Annie Sugier. Their involvement with child- custody cases led to a progressive treaty between the French and Algerian governments, and her work on female genital mutilation is also well respected. Earlier this year Weil-Curiel received the Prix de la Republique for her contribution to human rights. When she recalls the campaign's initial impetus, her voice still rises with excitement. But discussing the years of campaigning that followed, Weil-Curiel sounds worn down by the battle. Despite cross-party support in the German and French parliaments, the British sporting establishment and the IOC still choose to dismiss Weil- Curiel and her colleagues as three radical feminists with a hidden agenda and no credible support.

The central issue for Atlanta Plus is discrimination. Their argument is simple. They have never claimed to speak for all Muslim women, they say, and they do not wish to take issue with Islamic culture in general. "If Iranians, for instance, want to practise sport in a certain way in Iran, I have nothing to say," says Weil-Curiel. "It is their own business. What I am not happy with is the IOC supporting discrimination internationally, because they are betraying their oath."

This may be slightly disingenuous. It is hard to believe that Lizim, Sugier and Weil-Curiel are not also motivated by the wider issues of oppression posed by an apparent resurgence of fundamentalism, with the Olympics simply presenting themselves as the perfect platform. Yes, admits Weil-Curiel, the Olympics are ideal but that doesn't change the issue at hand. "The Olympic Charter is above personal, cultural or party politics. We are saying that countries who refuse to comply with the Olympic Charter exclude themselves from the Olympic Movement, and it is for the IOC to be strong enough to say so."

The IOC takes a different view and has said instead that it is not prepared to respond to Atlanta Plus. "For us it is not an issue," according to Director General Francois Carrard.

It is certainly not an issue that they feel comfortable discussing. My own attempts to speak to Fekrou Kidane, the IOC's Director of International Cooperation and Public Information, involved countless delicate exchanges with his staff at IOC headquarters which led me to conclude that our ideas of "cooperation" and "information" were somewhat out of line. After a tortuous four-week chase I had to settle for a faxed account of his views on women in sport which left many questions unanswered.

Kidane acknowledged that discrimination on the grounds of sex exists at many levels in sport, while declaring his own admiration for women in bizarrely anachronistic terms: "I have always admired women who assert themselves not by their beauty, although I have nothing against it, but by their intelligence, their savoir faire, their capacity for work and their sense of humanity."

He went on to trace the battle of women to find recognition in sport and listed the Olympic Movement's many contributions to this struggle. In the first modern Olympics, in Athens in 1896, women were barred from competing. Four years later they were admitted to a few, suitably feminine disciplines and so the gradual progress has continued until now, with 3,780 women athletes in the Atlanta Games, 40 per cent up on the number in Barcelona four years ago (although men will still outnumber them by nearly two to one). Yet there is, Kidane admitted, a long way to go. "Without wishing to generalise, religion and ancestral traditions are unavoidable handicaps in certain countries and often stop girls practising sport. One of the reasons why the Moroccan woman Nawal El Moutawakel, the Algerian Hassiba Boulmerka and the Ethiopian Derartu Tulu became symbols was that they were able to overcome the obstacles of their daily life." But, he continued, drifting somewhat from the issue of the Olympic charter, "as far as religion is concerned, it is not only Islam that does not admit women to its orders. In the Roman Catholic church, for example, women are not allowed to become priests and can therefore not conduct Mass."

Kidane went on to explain that the IOC "cannot force its 196 affiliated countries to divide power equally between men and women". This is true, but it fails to address the IOC's responsibility to uphold the Olympic Charter. The charter states that the National Olympic Committees "have the exclusive powers for the representation of their respective countries" but goes on to say that they must "ensure that the entries proposed by the national federations comply in all respects with the provisions of the Olympic Charter." That means no gender discrimination. And the IOC is charged with ensuring that these rules are observed.

Instituting change, however, can be a long and drawn out process. The IOC is an international bureaucracy, and its 105 members (only seven of whom are women) vote according to national interest. Prince Faisal Fahd Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia is a prominent member, and while there are a handful of women members now sitting on various working parties, it was only in 1981 that the first woman member was elected. None the less, last September the IOC called on sporting organisations to ensure that 10 per cent of their decision-making posts were occupied by women by the year 2000, rising to 20 per cent in 2005.

The woman with most potential power for change is Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, who as well as being tipped to succeed her father as Iran's president, created a special Women's Olympic Committee in the country as part of her work to promote sport for women and to launch and oversee the Islamic Women's Games. Although radical enough to have been attacked for urging that Iranian women be allowed to ride bicycles and motorbikes, she supports segregated sport. The women's games, last held in Tehran and next due to take place in Pakistan in 1997, are supported by the IOC and seen as the alternative for Muslim women. (In Tehran nearly all the medals were won by competitors from Muslim former Soviet Republics.) All the athletes and spectators there are women. While there are certainly female athletes who would themselves choose to compete in a segregated games, there are many others who wouldn't, and Atlanta Plus see the IOC's endorsement as reprehensible. "IOC support for these games is so dangerous," says Weil- Curiel, "because it legitimises discrimination which is inherent in the whole notion of separate games."

The many organisations set up in the UK to promote women in sport are reluctant to do more than murmur vaguely about "support in principle" when asked about Atlanta Plus. The IOC President, Juan Antonio Samaranch, runs a notoriously tight ship, and people in the business who rock the boat are liable to find themselves losing power and influence. One of Atlanta Plus's only open supporters in this country is Tony Banks MP, a Labour representative on the Parliamentary Council of Europe and a member of the Cultural Education Committee, which covers sport. Banks has raised the issue twice in Parliament, most recently last month. "At the Barcelona Olympics 35 countries had no female representation," he told the Commons. "Some countries are too small to have women athletes at Olympic standard, but others deliberately exclude women from participating. I must name Iran, which has explicitly banned women from most sports. I am not making an anti-Islamic point, although that is often how such points are misconstrued."

Banks accuses the IOC of "ducking the issue". "The Olympic Charter is quite specific about the matter," he told me. His aim is to raise awareness in the hope that pressure will be put on the IOC "to look at the Olympic Charter and ask themselves whether it's just a statement of intent or something they are prepared to enforce. It's politically a difficult situation but you can't just walk away from it for that reason." As for the Women's Games, Banks calls them "a clear attempt to pander to world opinion, an attempt to get off the hook which is unacceptable".

In Britain Tony Banks is a lone voice. This April, politicians from Germany's three main parties united to condemn the way in which the words and spirit of the Olympic Charter were being ignored. The UN has since added its support, while the German Sports Confederation pledged its support for Atlanta Plus's initiatives and called for the IOC to adhere to Chapter 1 of the Olympic Charter. In France, Ministers of Youth, Sport and Health have backed the campaign. At a meeting in the French Senate, speakers claimed that teachers and politicians across Europe were becoming aware of growing discrimination within immigrant communities by Islamic fundamentalists, and that in schools in France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, Muslim immigrants had begun to insist that their daughters should not participate in sport.

The President of the Islamic Sharia Council in London, Dr Darsh (a former Imam at the Central Mosque), advises worldwide on Islamic rulings. "The code of modesty," he explains, "which is supposed to be observed by Muslim women, does not encourage this sort of mixed activity. It is acceptable for women to compete in a female setting, but it must be a totally female affair. Even the people who are watching must be women only. Sometimes the clothes are very tight so that a woman looks as if she is not dressed and this appearance is not acceptable."

He acknowledges that this immediately excludes women as Olympic competitors as they cannot run in the type of clothing that would be considered acceptable. The Koran is specific, however. "Chapter 24, verse 31, gives the code of modesty for women," says Dr Darsh. "But beyond this the general spirit, culture and way of life excludes women from this mixed show. You have to appreciate that people are attracted by the physical appearance of the other gender. In one sense it is sport, but in another sense it is about physical appearance and attraction and within the framework of Islamic culture it is for men as well as women to behave in a decent and respectable manner. Men should compete with men and women with women."

Whatever the public statements and the perceived lack of action, there are many IOC members who are not indifferent to the difficulties faced by Boulmerka, Tulu and other women athletes from Islamic countries. Last year, the IOC set up a Working Group for Women in Sport, a consultative body which advises on policy. In January this year, Nawal El Moutawakel, a supporter of Atlanta Plus who in 1984 became the first Arabic woman to win an Olympic gold medal, was elected to the group. Articulate, multilingual and highly diplomatic, Moutawakel declines to speculate on the fortunes of women in other Muslim societies. "I can only speak for my own country. We have made giant steps since the Fifties, and we are still moving forward. We have mixed clubs, and women compete in many events, even gymnastics. Our King encourages women to take part and has always been a great support to me. He called me after my victory lap to congratulate me and let me know he was watching."

Pressed to explain how women in Saudi Arabia might make any kind of start in sport, Moutawakel is philosophical. "Where there is tradition, you must take time. Someone like Hassiba has shown that anything is possible. Each country has its own barriers, but change can take place. Saudi Arabia now has a strong men's team. This all helps to push sport forward."

Elisabeth Darlison, another member of the IOC's Working Group for Women in Sport, also runs WomenSport International, a pressure group based in Australia. She sees the fact that such a working party exists at all as tremendous progress. "We offer our support of the principle behind Atlanta Plus but don't necessarily think the approach is right. In our position, with a long history not only in feminism but in international sport, we are aware of the complexities of the situation and the process of change. We are concerned that divisions within the Muslim countries and women are recognised. Some women are comfortable with competing in the all women Muslim games, others are not. There are women who are fighting, and we are looking for ways to support these women." Western feminists have turned their attention late to sport, and Darlison believes that Atlanta Plus's confrontational style may have left them outside the main debate. "In principle we think it is absolutely essential to pursue gender equality in sport," she says, "but it is a long-term issue, and the process will be slow and painful."

The IOC, too, takes the view that change must come from within each Islamic country, and that in the conservative world of sport this can only happen very slowly. But pressure is mounting. In 1994, Britain's Sports Council hosted the first international conference on women and sport. Delegates and policy-makers from 82 countries came together to address the issue of how to accelerate the process of change needed to bring about equality in sport. Representatives from national Olympic Committees, international and national sports federations and educational and research institutes drew up a declaration outlining their aim to increase the involvement and recognition of women in sport at all levels. The IOC supported the conference, and IOC president Samaranch went on to endorse the key points before a gathering of NOCs in Atlanta last year. But it is up to each national committee to do its bit. As Fekrou Kidane says, all the IOC can do is "encourage all clubs, NOCs and national and international federations to promote women's sport and make it easier for them to reach positions with some technical or administrative responsibility. The IOC is seeking by various methods to accelerate this process." But, his fax to me concluded, "the IOC, like all social, political and professional organisations cannot force its 196 affiliated countries to divide power equally... This would be an undemocratic interference."

The question is how long can the IOC wait for this process to show real results. This month, largely as a result of Linda Weil-Curiel's efforts, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe met to discuss the issue. A draft resolution was passed calling for the IOC to "refuse to support the charade of the so-called Solidarity Games for Women in Islamic Countries" (a reference to the Islamic Women's Games) and to take a clear stand in line with its commitment against discrimination in the Olympic Charter. "From our point of view," the Council concluded, "no cultural rights should be used as an excuse for not respecting fundamental human rights, and discrimination against women violates such rights." !