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BEHIND THE RINGS: Inside the Olympic Movement

Women, Minorities Win IOC Seats, Still Face Hurdles

Olympics: Nawal el Moutawakel is a gold medalist, but her biggest obstacle is pushing diversity in the organization.

August 06, 2000|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CASABLANCA, Morocco — A scar runs across her knee, just below the hem of her bright red skirt. This is the first clue.

Never mind the way she smiles, the way her hair is primly tied back. Nawal el Moutawakel is not the sort to turn from a fight.

That scar harks back to her years as a hurdler, a gold medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Back then, as a female athlete from a Muslim society, she had to fight for the chance to run.

"Imagine a woman competing without a veil," she said. "I had to make a clash, to make my voice heard."

Now she must summon that toughness as a member of the International Olympic Committee. El Moutawakel is one of a new breed--many are women and athletes and hail from Third World countries. She and the others have been enlisted to help the IOC govern an Olympic movement that has grown as diverse as the United Nations.

Their arrival should make for a better democracy, according to advocates for a change in membership. Women should have more say in running the Games. Athletes should have more votes on an issue that greatly concerns them: drugs. And poor nations should be able to argue for a bigger slice of the IOC's television and sponsorship money, billions that might pay for everything from shoes to stadiums.

But the story of El Moutawakel illustrates both how far the IOC has come and how far it has to go.

She and the other new members face a challenge: How can they maneuver themselves into power in an organization long dominated by the European elite? Even the numbers are stacked against them.

For every minority delegate added during the last two decades, the European power base has also grown. As the IOC expanded to 113 members representing 199 nations, the European membership actually increased from 42.7% to 46.9%.

IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch says Europeans deserve more votes because the movement was born in Europe and remains based there. Besides, he says, Europeans have historically won the bulk of the medals, particularly at the Winter Games.

"Europe is the most important continent in the Olympic Games," he said flatly.

So El Moutawakel is moving cautiously, tempering her fire with political tact. The 38-year-old knows that skeptics will view this as a sign of weakness. She knows that many observers wonder if she can be as tough on the committee as she was on the track.

Overcoming Hurdles

Casablanca is a distinctly Arab city of saffron and flowing robes. It is also a working port where smoke drifts on the breeze and streets bustle with taxis and scooters and horse-drawn carts that haul everything from furniture to watermelons.

It could hardly be more removed from Lausanne, Switzerland, where the IOC meets on the shores of Lake Geneva.

Nearly half the first 100 members were royalty--and all were men. The late IOC president, Avery Brundage, raised the idea of a more diverse membership in the 1960s, but not much changed until Samaranch took office in 1980.

The Olympic movement has been diversified since then. In Sydney, women will compete in a dozen new events, including weightlifting and pole vault. Women will make up about 40% of all athletes.

But the leadership has changed more slowly. To date, women make up only 12% of IOC members. Fourteen recently nominated candidates are all men. And not until last winter, after the Salt Lake City bidding scandal, did the committee add delegates from another underrepresented constituency: current and recently retired athletes.

"They are drops in the bucket," said John Hoberman, an Olympics historian at the University of Texas. "The question is whether any individual or even a combination of new members who see themselves as activists are going to prevail against the older membership."

El Moutawakel was elected in 1998 along with members from Egypt, Syria and Panama, the sort of countries that, like Morocco, had a faint voice in the Olympic movement. That she became an IOC official--and now runs a foundation that builds rural schools--speaks to her unusual upbringing.

In a nation where many women still wear veils and cloak themselves in djellabas, El Moutawakel's parents, both bankers, reared their daughter to be outspoken and argued for her right to run with bare legs.

"Imagine if one time my father had said he wanted me to stay at home, to help cook or clean," she said.

In 1984, El Moutawakel was the only woman in a contingent of 126 people that Morocco sent to the Los Angeles Games. She won the 400-meter hurdles, earning the first gold medal in her nation's history.

Her life changed in the 54.61 seconds it took to run that race. She became a symbol of liberation for Arab women. People asked her to appear on television and give speeches.

"If I did not win," she said, "I probably would be raising 12 kids right now."

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