Life seems grey and empty this week without the Games of the 30th Olympiad of the Modern Era.
No more long afternoons of watching sports I know absolutely nothing about.
No more overblown Twitter camaraderie every time an Irish athlete does basically anything.
No more unrestrained bawling every time RTÉ shows a medals ceremony.
No more Boris Johnson getting stuck on a zipwire.
Along with so many others, I think London put on an astonishing and admirable show, and got as close as it’s possible to get to the Olympic ideal of uniting the international community for a brief period in peace, friendship, and absolute awe at the superhuman abilities of Usain Bolt. Plenty of people (somewhat disparagingly) pointed out that the world suspended its cynicism for the last fortnight. They’re right, but I found the enthusiasm and earnestness that surrounded the Games incredibly refreshing and heartening.
What but the Olympics could prompt a group of Thai children to perform a perfectly choreographed tribute to an amateur female boxer from Bray? Where but the Olympics do representatives of the U.S. and Iran or of North and South Korea shake hands and congratulate one another? Where but the Olympics can broadcast a cheeky lesbian kiss to oppressive living rooms worldwide? What but the Olympics would prompt Ireland to rally behind a young traveller from Mullingar? Where but the Olympics can a Saudi woman receive ecstatic cheers and applause for finishing a heat approximately six million miles behind the rest of the field?
All of these things are uplifting and highly symbolically significant. But as the smoke from the fireworks fades away and the venues are disassembled, we have to look the painful realities in the eye once again. The Olympics show us the joys that come with international friendship and amazing human achievement, but they also throw light on the brutality of conflict, prejudice and the suppression of human achievement.
It was rightfully celebrated that this year, for the first time ever, every country participating in the Olympics was represented by both men and women. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was browbeaten into allowing women to attend, and so Sarah Attar and Wojdan Shaherkani represented their country in 800m and judo respectively. It’s an achievement and it’s an important step, but it hasn’t changed the situation of Saudi women. Attar and Shaherkani are heroes in the eyes of many, but in the eyes of many Saudis they are “the prostitutes of the Olympics”. This week Saudi women are in the news because there are plans to segregate them into woman-only cities.
I know that this is being widely covered by the international media, but I want to throw my voice in. We’re all particularly horrified by different types of oppression. That Saudi women are banned from driving is abhorrent to many in the West. For me the ban on women exercising or participating in sport (which I’d never really considered before) is nauseating. It’s an attack on the health and well-being of the female population (as evidenced by soaring obesity levels among women). What really upsets me though is that it denies women the freedom to take pride in and enjoy their bodies and their strength.
For decades South Africa was denied access to the Olympics because of its degrading policy of apartheid. What’s happening in Saudi Arabia is apartheid. It is the most all-consuming, hateful, back-breaking, discrimination imaginable.
We were right to cheer and applaud Attar and Shaherkani. But having been with Saudi women in a moment of triumph, we must also have the strength to stay with them in their daily experience of loss. The loss of dignity, the loss of freedom, and the loss of anything resembling quality of life.