Olympics chairman says games can't fix gender inequality

LOS ANGELES Fri Feb 17, 2012 3:51am EST

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The chairman of the London 2012 Olympics said on Thursday that the Olympic committee needed to encourage more inclusiveness by countries that failed to send women to the games but cautioned that "sport is not the panacea for all ills."

"I think you can use sport in a way to encourage social change at a sensible rate," Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London Games, told Reuters in an interview. "The world is diverse, it's very complex, there are sometimes barriers that are not going to be broken down overnight."

Human Rights Watch criticized Olympic organizers earlier this week for their tolerance of gender discrimination by the Gulf Arab states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as the tiny southeast Asian nation of Brunei.

"The fact that women and girls cannot train to compete clearly violates the Olympic Charter's pledge to equality and gives the Olympic movement itself a black eye," Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement, referring specifically to Saudi Arabia.

"'No women allowed,' is the kingdom's message to Saudi women and girls who want to play sports," he said.

The three countries have never sent a female athlete to the games, Human Rights Watch said, although Qatar has announced its intention to send female athletes to the 2012 summer Games in London.

The Human Rights Watch report outlined systematic discrimination against women in sports in Saudi Arabia, a conservative Islamic kingdom where gender segregation is strictly enforced. Women in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, are banned from driving and need permission of a close male relative to work or travel.

A lack of government-supported infrastructure such as girls' physical education in Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter, makes it effectively impossible for women to compete on an international level at the same level as men, the report said.

Brunei and the tiny Gulf Arab state of Qatar, which submitted an application to host the 2020 Olympics in Doha on Thursday, support the right of women to participate in athletic competitions to a somewhat greater degree, but neither have ever sent a female athlete to the Olympic Games, the report said

Tiny Qatar is already slated to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022.

Asked if the absence of women representing Qatar undermines the core Olympic value of equality, especially if the country were to host the Olympic Games, Coe said: "I certainly think that is something that the (International Olympic Committee) will be confronting."

"But it's a long road, and these things don't happen to change overnight," he added.

Coe, who was in Los Angeles to speak at a conference on women in sports, cited the need for leaders in sport like Morocco's Nawal El-Moutawakel, who was the first Muslim woman to win an Olympic title.

Moutawakel won a gold medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games for the 400 meter hurdles, the same games at which Coe won gold in the 1500 meter track event.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Cynthia Johnston)

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