Sadaf Rahimi will be the first Afghan female boxer to compete in the Olympics

The Olympics are coming, the Olympics are coming! With every Olympics we have storylines. Some are puffed up and shoved down our throats by the networks showing the games, others emerge more organically. Neither of these stories comes with a video montage or cheesy music, at least not yet. We’ve got a disheartening update on the Saudi women who want to play and a cool story about a teen boxer form Afghanistan who is on her way to London.

I always like my bad news first so let’s talk about Saudi Arabia and its campaign to keep the ladies anywhere but on the field. Last month, we reported the good news that Saudi Arabia cleared the way for women to compete in the Olympics under the Saudi flag for the first time. Sadly, the Saudi sports minister has now confirmed that the country will not allow women to participate officially in the London Olympic games. Additionally, Prince Nawwaf al-Faisal stated “at present, we are not embracing any female Saudi participation in the Olympics or other international championships.” He asserted that the demand for women to be able to participate in the games came from women living outside of Saudi Arabia because there is no “female sports activity” within Saudi Arabia. (Is it just me or does “female sports activity” sound like the name of a lesbian bar?) The Prince said that the country would not support these women in their quest to participate officially but would cooperate with the women to ensure any participation conforms to Islamic law.

What does that mean? It means that there may be a way for the women to participate, perhaps under the Olympic flag, as athletes from Yugoslavia did in the 1992 Olympics.

Already there have been calls for the IOC to stand up for its principles and to bar Saudi Arabia completely from the Olympic games if they do not allow women to participate. As long as there is no female sports activity in Saudi Arabia the IOC should say no to any sports activity for the country anywhere else. Anything less renders meaningless the Olympic charter which states: “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” The ball is now in your court, IOC, it’s time to step up and to show that your charter isn’t just a bunch of nice, flowery language.

Now for some hopeful news. Afghanistan, which was suspended from Olympic competition and missed the 2000 Olympics due to the Taliban’s refusal to allow women to play sports, is getting ready to send its first female boxer, and third woman ever, to the London Olympics. Sadaf Rahimi is a 17-year-old boxer who trains in a Ghanzi Stadium in Kabul, a stadium that used to be used by the Taliban to execute women. Despite the meager conditions in which she trains alongside dozens of other girls and women, Rahimi has impressed the IOC enough to receive a wild card to compete in London. Rahimi is able to train for one hour a day in a gym that does not even have a boxing ring. In London she will compete against boxers who train in first-class gyms as many as three times per day.

Rahimi knows she faces an uphill struggle when she faces better trained and better funded fighters from around the world. However, she has faced adversity already from those who have threatened her family and those, including some of her extended family, who do not approve of women boxing. Her coach, Mohammed Saber Sharifi, a former professional boxer himself, is an advocate for women’s rights and is hopeful for what sports can accomplish. “I hope the world can see that Afghan women are breaking down barriers by pursuing their dreams of becoming a professional athlete. We represent this country with pride.”

Seeing women be vigorous, strong, disciplined, competitive, and athletic is jarring to many who think of women as weak, submissive, and in need of protection. If any sport can shatter that image it is boxing. Women must be quick, strong, smart, well-conditioned, and brave to throw punches and to absorb them from their opponents. For a country, like Afghanistan, in which women have long suffered under oppressive regimes that denied them opportunities in many aspects of life, Rahimi can be a symbol of the changes that have occurred in the country over the last decade and of the power, strength, and courage of Afghan women. While I am disappointed in Saudi Arabia’s refusal to allow women compete in the Olympics, I am hopeful that the image of Sadaf Rahimi standing in the ring and competing on behalf of her country will help encourage changes around the world.

We can easily get caught up during the Olympics with how many medals an individual or a country wins but sometimes the most inspiring stories involve athletes simply getting to the games. Most athletes will not win a medal, but all, including Rahimi, will be able to say that they competed. Hopefully, the women of Saudi Arabia will be able to say the same one day.

Will you be watching for Rahimi in London? What other stories are you looking forward to at the games?