Olympic athletes do the heavy lifting for gender equality

The low number of female athletes from GCC countries highlights a general lack of opportunity or interest in women's sport in the region.

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The 2012 Olympics have seen many headlines about the role of women at this year's Games. As the Games close today, we remember that female participation in the Olympics is not a new phenomenon for most countries: women first took part in the Olympics in the year 1900 - the second instalment of the modern Olympic Games.

After that, women's role gradually began to increase. More than a century later, 2012 has seen many firsts for women. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei have all sent female athletes to the Olympics, a first for each of those countries. As a result, the 2012 Games have had, for the first time in Olympic history, female athletes from all participating countries.

And with the inclusion of women's boxing this year, the Olympics now have an event for women in every category of sport. Almost 45 per cent of the athletes competing in London are women; some countries, such as the US and Lebanon, have more women than men on their national teams.

Many Arab countries have women competing in previously male-dominated sports such as weightlifting; there was no women's event in this sport before Sydney in 2000.

All these achievements are welcome, but the low number of female Olympic athletes from GCC countries displays a lack of opportunity or interest in women's sport in the region, save for a few exceptions.

Last year, The National reported a lack of appropriate sports facilities and qualified physical education teachers at government schools in the UAE, which reduces girls' opportunities to pursue sports. The lack of female athletes and teachers means girls have few role models. These compounding factors may reduce both ability and interest in sports for female students in the UAE.

However, the country has begun to address the low number of women athletes. The Women's Sports Committee was recently set up under the umbrella of the Dubai Sports Council to promote and encourage women in athletic activities, whether professionally or privately. And this year Abu Dhabi emirate hosted an International Abu Dhabi Conference for Women's Sports, as well as the GCC Women's Games.

These developments show a new-found commitment to addressing the low number of female athletes, and to narrowing the gender gap in sport.

On a global level, the International Olympic Committee is working to achieve greater gender equality at the Olympic Games. This is in accordance with international standards for gender equality as expressed in the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals.

The IOC has several gender-sensitive activities on its agenda. The committee recently ruled that any new sport to be introduced into the Olympics must include a women's event.

The IOC has also created a Women and Sport programme that helps national Olympic committees in developing countries to engage women in sports by hosting events and supporting research on ways to increase the number of female athletes.

The committee also hosts a conference every four years on women in sports. The fifth such meeting was held in Los Angeles this year, to assess progress and promote the participation of women at the Olympic Games.

The conference published the "Los Angeles Declaration", a list of recommendations aimed at achieving gender equality in IOC activities.

The list included a recommendation that the number of women in leadership positions within the IOC be increased by expanding female representation on executive committees and boards.

Another proposal called on the IOC to comply with international standards of gender equality across all its activities.

This will result in establishing a baseline for female representation in sports, further encouraging women from countries with low female participation to pursue their athletic goals.

Even though many countries have several female representatives on their Olympic teams, the IOC's continued commitment to gender equality will encourage countries with fewer female entrants to increase the number of women participants. We will see bigger, better pools of athletes to represent each country that makes the effort.

Huda Sajwani is an Emirati researcher on gender and public policy in the UAE

On Twitter: @HudaSajwani