More than 200 nations will participate in this year's Summer Olympic Games in London. Competing against the rest of the world in the games gives every country a chance to show off its talents and demonstrate the pride of its people.
Because of the international attention the Games draw, countries hiding political blemishes sometimes come under the spotlight. For this year's Olympics, an online movement has started to ban Saudi Arabia from participating because of the country's well-known practice of suppressing women's rights. Specifically in the context of sports, Saudi Arabia bans women from participating in the Olympics, according to Human Rights Watch, by limiting women's access to physical education and preventing them from competing in any sporting event at a national level. The kingdom has never even had a female athlete participate in the Olympics in its history.
The International Olympic Committee, the governing body of the Olympic Games, has occasionally taken the extraordinary step of barring a country from competing. The case against Saudi Arabia is particularly strong, since its actions go against one of the core principles in the Olympic Charter: "to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement."
The IOC took a similar stance when it banned Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 1999 from competing in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. The committee cited not only Afghanistan's oppression of women, but specifically laws forbidding them to play sports at all.
When the Taliban lost its grip on Afghanistan, the IOC reinstated Afghanistan's national teams into the games. In 2004, Afghanistan even had two female athletes participating, a first for the country.
Similarly, in 1964, the IOC banned South Africa from participating in the Olympics, a ruling that lasted until 1992. South Africa's ban resulted from the government's refusal to renounce apartheid. Government-instituted racial discrimination was so pronounced that white and black athletes were barred from competing against one another.
South Africa protested the ban, the longest in modern Olympic history, but didn't exactly have the support of its neighbors in its objections. In fact, in 1976, 25 African nations boycotted the Olympics. They weren't standing in support of South Africa, but rather protesting against the IOC's refusal to ban New Zealand, which sent a rugby team, the All Blacks, to compete in South Africa.* The IOC responded that the rugby panel was an "autonomous body and nothing to do with the Olympics," according to a report from BBC News.
Saudi Arabia's official position on allowing women to participate in sports seems consistent with past actions the governing body has taken with other countries in similar circumstances. In fact, the IOC has barred nations from the Olympics for less.
The most recent example of a row between IOC and a competing nation happened in 2008. Just weeks before the start of the 2008 Olympic Games, it looked like Iraq might not be allowed to compete. Four years earlier, in the 2004 Olympic Games held in Athens, Iraqi teams were cheered on as they appeared at the Games for the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Following a controversial decision by Iraqi authorities to hand-pick members of the Iraqi National Olympic Committee, the IOC decried what it called "government interference" and banned Iraqi athletes and teams from participating.
A last-minute deal struck between Iraqi authorities and the IOC shortly after the announcement of the ban allowed Iraqi teams to compete in Beijing in 2008 after all.
Saudi Arabia has managed to dodge a ban so far because the kingdom has periodically hinted that it might show some flexibility in easing its policy toward preventing women's participation in sports. This has bought them enough time to prevent the possibility of a ban for this year's Olympics, an action that requires a full IOC meeting. Such a meeting will take place soon after the London Games, and seeing the public's reaction to an all-male Saudi Arabian national team for yet another Olympics could just be the push the committee needs to do what it can to encourage change in the kingdom.
Photo credit: Corbis Images
*Update: This article has been corrected from its original version. The sentence originally referred to the New Zealand rugby team as consisting entirely of black players. In fact, the name of the team is the "All Blacks."