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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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"If you don't do a sport, it's easy to get involved in other things, like drinking," says Ngope, who's 29. "And if you're drinking, it's easy to get AIDS. A man will say that AIDS stands for American Idea for Discouraging Sex. Or that he must sleep with a virgin to be cured of the disease."

The only man in her life is her coach, who lives down the street and has trained her since she was five. "I had a boyfriend," she says, "but I caught him cheating on me, and I didn't want to catch AIDS."

From behind her fence, Ngope fixes an eye on 2004 and Athens. If karate is there, she says she will be, too. But she'll be 33, and that is an optimistic life expectancy for Batswana women of her generation.

The woman, a lawyer in Paris, holds up a copy of the Olympic Charter streaked with fluorescent highlight marks. "This is our Bible," Linda Weil-Curiel says. "We know it by heart. We are asking the IOC to do nothing more than abide by its own charter."

The IOC governs itself by a document of thunderous idealism. The charter holds that "any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, sex or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement." Those words accounted for South Africa's ostracism from the Games for 21 years because of its racist policies. So in 1995 Weil-Curiel helped found a group, Atlanta Plus, to shame the IOC into abiding by its own high-mindedness and banning those countries that don't send women to the Games for whatever reason, whether cultural or religiously sanctioned gender apartheid.

The IOC has sent observers to the Islamic Women's Games, and that causes Weil-Curiel to bristle, for she believes such emissaries legitimize segregation by sex. She bristles, too, at the IOC's stance toward Afghanistan, a stance that she sees as muddled and spineless.

The Afghanis won't participate in these Olympics, and it's not entirely clear why. The IOC has cited the failure of the United Nations to recognize the Taliban. It has cited the ongoing civil war, which has forced the national Olympic committee to flee the country. Then late last month a member of the IOC's executive board actually echoed the arguments of Atlanta Plus, rechristened Atlanta-Sydney Plus, and asserted that Afghanistan would be barred because the Taliban's treatment of women violates the Olympic Charter. Yet why are the Saudis and the emirates of the Persian Gulf not beyond the pale? Weil-Curiel asks. Though they eventually rescinded the invitation, why did members of the IOC invite to Sydney as observers two representatives of the Taliban, who use sports stadiums to make public spectacle of torture and execution?

In Switzerland, in her office in a ch�teau by Lake Geneva, another woman speaks from a different perspective. Katia Mascagni Stivachtis heads the IOC's department of women's advancement. According to an analysis by the Los Angeles Times, the IOC collects annual revenues of $900 million, mostly in TV and sponsorship revenue, yet it puts barely 3% of its income into training athletes and coaches. Scarcely a quarter of that portion—$7.6 million—goes to the developing world, where women most need help.

Mascagni Stivachtis says the IOC can only do so much, and she disagrees with the call of Atlanta-Sydney Plus for a boycott. If the IOC neglects to use the Olympic Charter as a cudgel, it's only because the committee feels more urgent work must be done. "One of our main duties is to develop sport for women," she says. "In some countries we need more time to bring about change and integration. If sport has to be practiced separately rather than mixed, that's an entry point. We can't change culture overnight."

Mascagni Stivachtis admires what Faezeh Hashemi is doing in Iran: "You can agree with her or not. But to achieve something you must have ambition, a vision and be willing to fight. I think she is very brave."

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