Playing games with women’s rights

Posted on August 9, 2015


Every year as August dawns there is an annual media ritual in South Africa about women’s rights and, on August 9, a positive rash of declarations of intent and remembrances about the 1956 anti-pass march of the women on Union Buildings. But while institutionalised apartheid has gone, the position of women in South Africa and around the world remains demonstrably unequal and, in some cases is worse now than it was 20 or more years ago.

However, this year there was great irony in the media murmurings about national “Women’s Month” being eclipsed by news of the awarding of the 2022 winter Olympics to Beijing. And not only because China has a hardly sterling record for human as well as women’s rights.

In 1995 Beijing hosted what was claimed as a major breakthrough for women: The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. It was adopted by 189 countries and was hailed as “a visionary agenda”.

According to the United Nations, this Platform for Action “imagines a world where each woman and girl can exercise her freedoms and choices, and realise all her rights, such as to live free from violence, to go to school, to participate in decisions and to earn equal pay for equal work”. Twenty years on, for millions of women, that Beijing vision remains a mirage.

And the fact that Beijing was awarded the winter Olympics has also doubled the irony because of the history of this international competition. It started out 119 years ago as an elitist and exclusively male preserve, an approach that has echoes today in the payments and publicity differentials that persist in male and female sports.

The fact that women now compete in the Olympics can also be attributed, not to the founding ethos of the “modern Games”, but in substantial measure to the labour movement. This is another part of largely forgotten history.

The first of the modern Games was the brainchild of a wealthy French nobleman, Baron Pierre de Courbetin. His vision of the Olympiad was a way of uniting what he perceived to be the cultured — male and white — elite of the world across national boundaries.

All competitors, De Courbetin ruled, should be amateurs. As such, he ensured that the modern Games would also be exclusive on the basis of class. Professionals — those paid to compete — were clearly unsuitable and this effectively excluded working men who had neither the time to train nor the money for equipment.

In the face of this class and gender bias, and in the wake of the nationalist bloodbath of World War I, the labour movement in Europe and the United States supported the establishment of an international “worker sports” Games. This was open to all, irrespective of gender, race or religion. The first “Worker Games” were staged in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1921.

Ten years later, the workers’ summer Games in Vienna attracted 100 000 athletes and 250 000 spectators — on both counts more than the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. But by then, in Germany, Hitler and the Nazis were on the rise, promoting ultra nationalism and the idea that a woman’s place was in the home as a housewife and baby producer.

When, against widespread opposition, Germany, with the support of the Olympic Committee, won the right to stage the 1936 Olympics, the Nazis introduced three innovations that still persist: the Olympic flame (symbolising burning out the filth of the world) and torch relay along with national anthems instead of the single, unifying, Olympic anthem. Just as these symbols persist, so too, in different ways and in various parts of the world, do the nationalist and male chauvinist attitudes that accompanied them.

And since the Beijing Declaration there have been a number of similar declarations of intent to end discrimination and to halve or abolish poverty, war and other forms of violence. Beijing, 20 years ago, called for action to bring about radical change. It hasn’t happened.

And that is what we should really be concerned about on Sunday and on every other day of the year.