Just after the midway mark, the events of London 2012 Olympics are unfolding beyond the competitive arena. Oscar Pistorius, Wojdan Shaherkani and Sarah Attar and Gabby Douglas have won psychological gold, defying stereotypes, "tradition" and so-called political correctness.
Gabby, the 16-year-old double gold medal winner, beat the event challengers, and also created problems for the politically correct. In 2012, Gabby deftly sidestepped the stereotypes. Packaged and tagged as black and therefore anomalous, she defied personal and gymnastic challenges to win prized all-round gold. The debatable question is whether the description "black gymnast" is required in order to report completely and effectively on Gabby's achievements and significance. After all, we would not ordinarily report on a "white gymnast".
The argument is that this is part of Gabby's achievements. It is difficult enough to win all-round gold at the Olympics. It is even more challenging for a black gymnast to compete for a spot on the US gymnastics team and make it all the way through. Douglas' achievements were best summarised by author Ann Holmes. Holmes writes, "Douglas' triumph seems extremely remarkable, both because of the commonality of her situation—the big dreams, the economic hardships, the one-parent household—and its unusualness: a minority in a historically 'white' sport." It is estimated that black participation in US gymnastics programmes is around ten per cent. Holmes believes that Gabby's two medals "have the potential not only to inspire millions of young girls around the world but also to influence American ideas about what it means to be a 'golden girl'".
Gabby will surely change the minds of millions of people around the world who dream big dreams, but make concessions to stereotypes, labels and "tradition".
Oscar Pistorius' story is one of defiance, persistence and like Gabby, a rejection of labelling and stereotypes. The 25-year-old Pistorius defied incalculable odds by becoming the first double-amputee to compete in the Olympics, running in his pet 400 metres sprint. He followed Natalie du Troit, the Beijing 2008 10K swimmer and first amputee Olympian.
With his "Cheetah Flex Feet", Pistorius refused to settle for five medals won at the Paralympics, the "natural" place for him. And he did not settle for being the first double-amputee to compete at the prestigious World Championships. Pistorius fought for and won the right to compete at the Olympics.
To get to the Olympics Pistorius had to win a reversal on the ban on his competing with the Cheetah and also, get the South African Olympic Committee (SAOC) to include him on the team to London. In 2007, years after Pistorius began competing at International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) events, the IAAF amended a rule banning devices that provide users with an advantage over other athletes. Then, in 2008, the IAAF ruled that Pistorius' Cheetah was a technical device which provided him with an advantage.
Months later, Pistorius successfully appealed to the Court for Arbitration of Sport (CAS). Key to the CAS decision on the IAAF amendment was a CAS finding that, weeks before the amendment in January 2008, some IAAF officials had already determined that they did not want Pistorius to be acknowledged as eligible to compete in international IAAF-sanctioned events, regardless of the results that properly conducted scientific studies might demonstrate.
Even after that CAS decision, the SAOC first determined that Pistorius did not meet its required qualifying standard, and then agreed that Pistorius would run both the 400 metres and the 1,600 metres relay. In an achievement celebrated around the world, he qualified for the 400 metres semi-finals, but within hours of those semi-finals, the world retreated to old habits. Headlines reported, "Double amputee Oscar Pistorius fails to qualify for 400m final".
And then we have the Saudis. For the first time in a century of the modern Olympics, 204 countries had complete teams of male and female athletes. Wojdan Shaherkani and Sarah Attar were accepted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) under the Olympics' "universality" clause, which allows athletes who didn't meet qualifying times to compete, when their participation is deemed important for reasons of equality.
But gender has still not won all-round gold.
First, a last-minute compromise sealed Wojdani's competition in the 78-plus kg category of judo: the hijab she must wear under Saudi law is still considered a safety risk in some events, including judo. The hijab and burka continue to trigger legal challenges around the world, creating another threshold of inequality for women, even in countries where they enjoy equality
Second, observers have emphasised that much remains to be done in Saudi Arabia, a country in which legal gender segregation restricts women's basic rights, freedoms and space to participate in public life. Zoë Ferraris, the author of the new book, Kingdom of Strangers, writes in the Huffington Post that, "Saudi Arabia's decision to send women to the Olympics has forced open a very public window into the complicated state of affairs for women in that Muslim country." Ferraris notes that, "The restrictions that prevent women from driving cars, taking buses and even walking through their cities alone are based on a religious code that preaches modesty for both genders, yet none of those restrictions on physical freedom are enforced on men."
Third, even as battle lines remain along the male/female lines, new gender issues will arise. In 2012, Vancouver's Jenna Talackova fought Donald Trump's Miss Universe Canadian franchise. Miss Universe had excluded Jenna as a 2012 Miss Universe Canada finalist, because she was born a male and had sexual reassignment surgery.
Going into Sochi in 2014 and Brazil 2016, we can expect that political and social issues will fight for Olympic gold.
(For Nigel Bradshaw)
• Clarence Rambharat is an
attorney and university lecturer