One of the great things about the Olympics is that women’s athletics gets the spotlight for a couple of weeks every four years. And it seems as though every Olympiad, the IOC or the governing bodies of various sports get it together and agree that the world will not end if the IOC gives its blessing to women doing X for a medal (where X might be marathoning (not added until 1984 for women, while the men had been doing it for decades) or boxing (just added this year)). There are still sports, like ski jump, where women are kept out of competition at the Olympic level because of fears for their girly bits.
So it’s incredibly inspiring to learn that one of the most-watched and most-supported athletes in the current Games was a female boxer from Ireland named Katie Taylor.
LONDON – They came from Cork and Kerry. They flew in from Dublin and brought their daughter from across town. They came for a 5-foot-5, 132-pound woman whose hands deliver hammer swings, happiness, and hope.
They came because Katie Taylor – Ireland’s Katie Taylor – was boxing for the gold medal.
They came because this might be the most perfect Irish story ever, and the Irish love stories. The humble kid, mesmerized by her father shadow boxing in their kitchen along the Irish coast, winds up trained by dad in a sport few believed should even be allowed – a girl fight? She turns into the four-time world champion, humble, hard-working, and wrapped, literally, in religion: “The Lord is my Savior and my shield,” her robe reads.
“She’s an everybody,” said 17-year-old Aifric Norton, who flew here with her older brother Aonghus.
They came because, back home, the recession drags on and drags down. And when Katie Taylor hits someone in the mouth it feels, even for a brief moment, like Ireland, too, can hit back.
“Everybody forgets about the recession when she fights,” said Con McDonnell, who flew in with three buddies all wearing “Katie Taylor Made for Gold” T-shirts.
They came because they were the lucky ones who got tickets. “Half of Ireland is here,” marveled Barry McGuigan, the old Irish champion. Others just came over to hang around outside the ExCeL Center, stuffing the bars and restaurants in what was once a slum of East London. “There’s 1,500 paddies down the road in the pubs,” said Graham Regan, noting he knows because that’s where he watched Taylor’s semifinal victory on Wednesday.
They came because they know back in Taylor’s hometown of Bray, in County Wicklow, there were 10,000 people gathered outside to watch on a giant screen. They had to move the viewing to a bigger spot because 6,000 showed up for the semifinal and the town square couldn’t hold them all. Across the nation, everyone else just crowded into pubs and living rooms. Many bosses in the city centers of Dublin and Galway just let workers go early rather than pretend they wouldn’t sneak off anyway. “The country will stop today,” said fan Tony Barrett.
They came because coming had developed into a movement. Each Taylor fight during these Olympics saw the 10,000-seat venue filled with green shirts and homemade signs and Tricolour flags. For the finale, the venue manager estimated 8,000 Irish were in attendance, even with a Brit fighting for gold in a different weight class.
Oh, and the building filled with noise. Lots and lots of noise. Unbelievable amounts of noise. The fans, often these burly men, would sing soccer songs and chant “I-er-LAND, I-er-LAND” and “KAY-t, KAY-t.” Louder and louder. This was the wildest scene of the Games, electric and exciting. The International Olympic Committee measured the noise at every session of the Olympics, and nothing matched the decibels of the introduction for a Katie Taylor fight. The second-loudest event was the final seconds of a thrilling Great Britain cycling victory at the Velodrome. . . .
The most popular athlete in Ireland is female. Where else is that true? Where else could that be true? And it’s real, with men, grown men, old and young, coming because of what she can do in the field of competition. There was no stigma. This was boxing. Not women’s boxing. Twenty years ago to the day, Michael Carruth – also coached by his father – won gold in Barcelona, making him a forever legend. His gold wasn’t any bigger than Taylor’s.
Compare that to the reaction of many Saudis to the fact that two Saudi women participated at all:
Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani returns to Saudi Arabia as the first woman to represent the Kingdom in judo, but while her participation has been celebrated globally the domestic reaction to her accomplishment has ranged from lukewarm to openly hostile. Her father, a judo referee who said he wanted his daughter to make “new history for Saudi’s women,” is reportedly incensed at conservative Saudis who showered her with racial slurs on Twitter and called her a “prostitute” for participating.
The Kingdom bent to a combination of international pressure and the increasingly powerful Saudi vox populi by announcing—just a month before the Games began—that Shahrkhani and Sarah Attar, a California born-and-bred track runner at Pepperdine with dual citizenship, would compete at the Games. But while the decision was a baby step toward gender equality for the approximately 11 million women and girls who call Saudi Arabia home, the move trigged a powerful conservative backlash from clerics and others. . . .
Even as the pressure builds for Saudi Arabia to allow women to participate or risk becoming an outlier even in the Islamic world—Iran and Yemen have women’s soccer teams, for instance—the state has tried to hold the line. Its Olympic athletes have barely been brought up in the state-sanctioned press, and much of the Twitter conversation about them has been hostile. Steps of the Devil: Denial of Women and Girls’ Rights to Sport in Saudi Arabia, a devastating report by Human Rights Watch details the profoundly deviant yet tenaciously held religious objections of Saudi clerics to women engaging in sports. Allowing Saudi girls and women to compete would invite them to engage in immodest movement, aberrant clothing, and performances in front of unrelated males that would lead to immorality and desecration of the purity of the Saudi female, influential clerics insist. They argue that vigorous movement is a threat to the health and honour of the “virgin girl,” a profound deterrent in a shame-and-honor-centred culture that places extraordinary value on the intact hymen of an unmarried woman.
Dr. Mohammad al-Arifi, an influential cleric who preaches at Al-Bawardi Mosque in Riyadh, is on faculty at King Saud University, warned Prince Nawaf against sending Saudi women to the Olympics:
“Women practicing sports … is fundamentally allowed … but if this leads to mixing with men … or revealing private parts … or men watching her sometimes run, sometimes fall down … sometimes laugh and sometimes cry or quarrel with another female athlete … or mount a horse … or practice gymnastics … or wrestling … or other sports … while the cameras film and the [television] channels broadcast … then there can be no doubt that it is forbidden.”
Attar can go back to California, where she was born and raised, and avoid much of the backlash to her participation. But Shahrkhani has to go back to live under this repressive regime. At least her father, who is also her coach, is on her side and is willing to stand up for her, using the rules of the regime:
The father of judoka Shaherkani was so incensed that he contacted the country’s interior minister to demand action against those who had insulted his daughter. Under Saudi law, punishment for insulting a woman’s honor and integrity can be up to 100 lashes.