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Aiming HIGHER
Alexander Wolff
September 18, 2000
The Number Of Female Olympians Is Growing—even A Pistol-packing Iranian Is In Sydney—but For Many The Games Are Unattainable Because Of Oppression, Prejudice And Disease
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September 18, 2000

Aiming Higher

The Number Of Female Olympians Is Growing—even A Pistol-packing Iranian Is In Sydney—but For Many The Games Are Unattainable Because Of Oppression, Prejudice And Disease

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Were Uruguay ever to send women to the Olympics in a team sport, that sport ought to be soccer. The R�o de la Plata is the Euphrates of the South American game, and Uruguay's three million people look back with disbelieving pride at World Cups won in 1930 and '50. Make a gift of a doll to a working-class girl still innocent of society's expectations, and she may rip off the head to kick it around. But soccer is Uruguay's most sacred male preserve. The female version has existed formally only since 1996. While boys begin playing "baby football" from age five, the organized game remains unavailable to girls younger than 14. The president of Montevideo's most famous soccer club, Pe�arol, has vowed that so long as he remains in office there will be no Pe�arol women's team. "When I tell a man I play soccer, he will clutch at his heart," says a member of one of the few women's teams, River Plate.

So the River Plate women routinely put up with indignities, such as the recent publication in a Uruguayan tabloid of a doctored picture of Brandi Chastain, the American player who doffed her jersey after the U.S. won the 1999 World Cup. The newspaper had added huge, naked breasts, and trumpeted its fakery with the headline WELCOME FUTBOL FEMININO!

In the Muslim world, to please the mullahs, editors retouch more clothing into the frame. In the Latin world, to please the machistas, they add more flesh. To be a sportswoman is to be whipsawed between poles of male prescription.

If Iranian women must fight to practice competitive sport, and all but the most determined Uruguayan women won't fight, some women simply can't fight. In Botswana, culture hardly lets them. Many there believe that muscles compromise a woman's femininity and contact sports put her fertility at risk. In traditional Setswana society, boys were out and active, herding cattle and collecting firewood; girls cooked, and bore and cared for children. The most popular sport for girls is a legacy of British colonialism called netball, a prissy strain of basketball in which dribbling is prohibited. It's as likely to find a place on the Olympic program as snooker.

But more than anything, AIDS is making female sport in Botswana, rare to begin with, less and less practicable. More than one in every three women between 15 and 25 is HIV-positive, and the percentage of women being infected is twice that of men. Even if a woman dodges the epidemic, its ripple will touch her, for she will be expected to look after the sick and take in the orphaned. If the scourge continues at its current pace, demographers predict that two thirds of the current population's 15-year-olds will die. Of Botswana's failure ever to send a woman to the Olympics, AIDS is a cause. Of the difficulty Batswana women have in telling a man no, AIDS is a symptom.

In these bleak circumstances Goitsemodimo Dikinya runs. At 17, she's already Botswana's female national champion in the 200 and 400 meters and a member of the 4 X 100 relay team that placed fifth at the 1999 All- Africa Games. She has dreamed of running competitively from the time she was 10, when she first watched her elders do so and cried when she was told she was too young to join them. In her home of Letlhakane, a village of mud huts and thatched roofs, schoolmates post themselves at 100-meter intervals when she trains, to urge her on her way.

Goitsemodimo is at a tipping point. She is fetching in the school blues of Letlhakane Senior Secondary, and in the courtyard during lunch hour boys send pointed flirtations her way. Will she get an early start on motherhood, as so many of her peers do, within marriage or without? Will AIDS—referred to as "snatch and bury" in the local vernacular—make another victim of her? Or will she fulfill the destiny augured by her selection in 1999 as her country's Junior Sports Female of the Year? The answer rests in her first name, which means God Knows.

Her mother bore 10 other children to her father, who used to work in the diamond mines that blot the horizon outside Letlhakane with mounds of tailings. Though the mines help give Botswana, a country of 1.6 million people, a reasonably healthy economy, half the population lives in poverty, and the percentage of 15-to-49-year-olds infected with HIV is the highest in the world.

Goitsemodimo will soon board a bus for Gaborone, for national team training camp. A few years earlier two supervisors at a similar sports camp took sexual liberties with three young women in their charge. The scandal came to light not because the girls stood up for themselves, but because the boy athletes, believing the girls had been chosen for the camp as indulgences for their supervisors, spoke up out of resentment.

Botswana could send a woman to the Olympics four years hence if Goitsemodimo tips just so. Women could break through, too, if karate finds a place on the Olympic program. So hopes Tebogo Ngope, who lives with her widowed mother behind a security fence in a bungalow in downtown Gaborone. Ngope won a silver medal at the All- Africa Games and has helped achieve a fourth-place finish for the Batswana women's team at the World Karate Championships.

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