• Spanish head of the International Triathlon Union is confident women from the Middle East will soon be playing prominent roles in sport around the world.
  • Brian Lewis, a member of the IOC’s Gender Equality Review Project, has called for Olympics president Thomas Bach to eventually be replaced by a woman. BUENOS AIRES: Ploughing a lonely furrow, the sole female presiding over an International Federation at the summer Olympic Games believes she will not be isolated for much longer. Marisol Casado, the Spanish head of the International Triathlon Union, predicts an “explosion” of women from the Middle East taking up positions of sporting power in the very near future.

Casado, speaking at the recent Olympism in Action conference in Buenos Aires, lamented her role as the only woman president of a Summer Olympic federation, joking that when it comes to election time, she lobbies all the female voters by simply looking in the mirror. “I really want more company,” she told conference delegates. “It’s difficult to be alone.”

A member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) since 2010, Casado expressed confidence however that she will soon have company at boardroom level, adding her recent visits to the Arab World have left her with the impression the region is on the verge of major change when it comes to gender empowerment.

“I’ve been to the Middle East because we have a very important triathlon race in Abu Dhabi and I was also in Saudi Arabia,” she said. “My feeling is that very soon the situation there will change and there will be an explosion of women from the region coming through. That was the feeling I had when I was there and it has stayed with me.”

Appearing in a panel discussion entitled “Women in Sport,” Casado was due to speak alongside Saudi Arabia’s Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, vice president of the General Sports Authority. A conflicted schedule, however, forced the princess to withdraw, leaving Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini the only female Arab speaking at the two-day meet.

Such underrepresentation is apparent at the recent World Youth Olympics too, where more than 4,000 athletes took part, but only 98 were Arab girls. Kuwait, Libya and Qatar did not bring a single female athlete to the two-week Games, despite the IOC promising an equal number of male and female participants across the 32 sports.

Yet another Arab women did take to the stage after Casado’s prediction. Two-time Jordanian Olympic swimmer, Samar Nassar, was awarded the IOC’s Women and Sport Award for Asia in recognition of her work helping promote gender equality through football in the Middle East. She is the first winner from the Middle East since Bahrain’s Sheikha Hayat Bint Abdulaziz Al-Khalifa won in 2015.

Nassar, a board member of the Jordan Olympic Committee since 2014, was the Kingdom’s driving force behind the successful hosting of the FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup in 2016. She also pioneered various societal programs, including establishing football programs for female Syrian refugees at the Zaatari camp in Jordan.

“I’m very happy to receive this award,” she told Arab News. “It was for our efforts in promoting women’s football and sports in the region and to use the U17 World Cup as a catalyst to promote social change in an area that is desperate for it. We see the momentum now as there are more women than ever participating in sports. And it is still growing.

“But it is not just about the physical aspect of it, it is also the social aspect. Using it as a platform for women empowerment and sending a message across the region that women can succeed not just on the pitch but off it as well. Saudi Arabia is opening up and Iran is starting to open up too. That is nice to see and I think we have a fruitful future.”

Among those who watched Nassar accept her award was Jordan’s Prince Faisal bin Hussein, whom Nassar called a “champion of promoting and advocating for women’s sport”, and Raha Moharrak, the youngest Arab and first Saudi Arabian to conquer Mount Everest.

“We need a catalyst for change; we need a big sporting event to put the spotlight on the region and on women’s sport; and we need role models to inspire, which we already have many,” Nassar added. “With the right support and right approach, I hope to see more women not only doing well in sport, but also in positions of power. It is, however, a gradual process.”

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the United Nation’s Under-Secretary and executive director of UN Women, said that while she agrees growth is a slow process, more must be done by those in power. Especially in terms of having more Arab women represented at major events.
“That has to be fixed,” she said. “We need society to shout very loud about this and call it out for the injustice that it is. You cannot tell me there are not as many women capable of sport in the Middle East. Women there are just as capable as women in Kenya or any other country where women athletes are playing a significant role.

“It’s slower in the Arab world, but it’s not impossible. I have seen and met and engaged with leaders from the Middle East who also want and need change. It is not in the interest of these countries not to have women taking their place in society. The region already has a high number of educated women so they have to use that to their advantage.”

Brian Lewis, a member of the IOC’s Gender Equality Review Project, took it a step further, calling for Olympics president Thomas Bach to eventually be replaced by a female.

“This is the 21st Century,” he said. “The Olympic movement needs to better reflect the world we live in. There must be a commitment by leaders — who are mainly men — to do something concrete and practical. In the history of the IOC, there has never been a woman president. The time has now arrived. It’s time for a women president.”


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