Hooray for Susanthika Jayasinghe, the first Sri Lankan women medallist at the Olympics!! As President Kumaratunga aptly noted, her achievement is a cause of pride not only to Sri Lankans, but also Asians (Jayasinghe was the only Asian among the 8 finalists in the 200 metres), and "as a woman, I am indeed proud of another womans moment of glory".
As feminists, we too salute Susanthika for her phenomenal feat that is sure to inspire many other girls across the nation to try to focus on similar goals in their lives and most importantly, strive to bring them to fruition. As feminists we are delighted that Susanthikas triumph now gives us a new kind of poster woman one who is adorned with jewellery and make up yet also dark complexioned, well muscled and healthy. As feminists we are also very proud that despite all the stresses and expectations of the Olympics upon her shoulders, Susanthika chose this occasion to make her political commitment to her countrys well being very clear by wearing a yellow ribbon on her wrist, in support of the campaign for a free and fair election. As we have noted in many previous columns, women make up half our population, they have every right and they MUST express their opinions and participate more actively to put a stop to the burgeoning violence in every sphere of our lives today.
Susanthikas triumph at the Olympics has come in the face of much adversity, disappointment and hardship in the past. In 1997, Cats Eye wrote two articles in support of Susanthika. We quote:
"The treatment of Susanthika is also a fine example of double standards, hypocrisy, male chauvinism, sexual exploitation and the demonizing of women prevalent among the patriarchs. Earlier this year, (1997) when Susanthika, the much-lauded "village lass," was accused of drinking beer and partying, the vultures swept down: Susanthika has "betrayed village values," she has eaten "forbidden fruit," "Who does she think she is?" they cried. She was even punished with a six-month ban on sporting activity, but the ban was lifted after womens groups and many others protested." (26 Nov. 1997)
Machismo in sport
Cats Eye has also frequently highlighted what a struggle it is for sportswomen in this country to gain gender equity. As in most countries, sports in Sri Lanka is mainly a male preserve, associated with masculinity and machismo. Despite the rhetoric about sporting excellence, most young girls participation in competitive sports ends with either on the grounds of the need to safeguard their respectability now that they are of "marriageable age are the need to have them concentrate on their studies (our excessive stress on defining academic excellence via national examinations coming to the fore here). The few brave souls that continue to participate in sports beyond adolescence, are faced with the talk of dealing with patriarchy in various forms - be it restrictions on their dress, behaviour, funding, mobility etc or their requirement to be completely subservient to the (male) bureaucracy that governs them. Let us also no forget that from the 1920s onwards local bamunas (traditionalists) deplored the participation of Buddhist girls in athletics, swimming and other sports, and blamed this on western influences.
Sport as big business
It is a well known fact today that sports is big business and requires the input of millions of dollars far similar millian dollar results. Indeed, one wonders whether Jayasinghe would have been able to win a medal if she had not gone to the United States which enabled heó to access sophisticated and up to date facilities and equipment and to consult and hire experienced and world class coaches. Undoubtedly, the input of mega bucks, sophisticated training equipment and diets and experienced coaches and physiotherapists have played a similarly crucial role in producing more consistently positive performances by our national cricket team (despite the rampant corruption, thuggery and petty politicking within the National Cricket Board). In such a context, however, it is frequently sportswomen who get sidelined when such costly investments are considered, as has been the case in Kenya, which focuses much more attention, funding and resources on its male runners than female athletes. Therefore, we are glad that the President has offered Susanthika Jayasinghe a scholarship to train in any country of her choice. We also hope that more resources will be made available to many other aspiring young women athletes and other sportwomen, by not only the state but also private companies and sporting foundations which are much better equipped to make such costly investments.
Gender equity in sports
Good performance in sports, like in any other field, is dependent on supportive institutions and infrastructures that do not discriminate on the basis of gender, race, class, caste or sexual affiliation. In the United States, for instance, there is a now a law to ensure gender equity in sports. This has helped encourage sportswomen at the school and college levels. The effect of this is now evident in the number of outstanding women athletes that the U.S. is producing, such as Marion Jones who won three gold medals and two bronze medals in one Olympic Games. Another US gold medallist, Stacy Dragila, established that women could do the pole vault despite the insistence of some of her male peers that women were not built right for this sport and did not have adequate upper body strength. As a recent issue of the Sportstar noted, women continue to penetrate the boundaries of previously male-only events that require great strength and endurance. The Sydney Olympics has, for the first time, included women in the following sports: weight lifting, triathlon, taekwondo, modern pentathlon, water polo, pole vault and hammer throw. In the womens hammer throw, we saw the inspiring performance of seventeen year old Kamila from Poland, the youngest woman competitor in a track and field event to win a gold medal.
Women in Olympics
Indeed, as Indian journalist Kalpana Sharma points out, womens participation in the Olympics has come a long way from the first modern games in 1896 when women were not allowed to compete (The Hindu 27, August 00). According to Sharma, one woman, Melpomene did compete, but unofficially. Since then, the numbers have steadily grown Between 1996, when the last Olympics were held in Atlanta, to the just concluded Olympic Games in Sydney, an additional 774 women qualified to compete in the games. The 4,400 women athletes in Sydney constituted 42 per cent of the total number of 10,500 athletes. It was also in Sydney that women, far the first time in the history of the Olympics, competed in the same number of team sports as men.
The Sportstar also credits Juan Antonio Samaranch, President of the International Olympic Committee, with increasing the participation of women athletes as well as officials, during his tenure. He named the first, female member of the IOC in 1981, and today 13 of the 113 delegates are women. Four years ago Samaranch proposed that women should hold at least 10% of the decision-making positions in the IOC, in every national Olympic Committee and international sports federations by 2000, with the number rising to 20% by 2005. "We appointed women IOC members for the first time and we solved a very important problem, the participation of women in the Games" Samaranch said in a recent interview, "but we still have a problem; that is, the presence of women in leading positions running sport." He is right to be concerned, of the 48 names proposed recently for the 14 new positions as IOC members, none of them were women.
Apart from an increase in numbers among women athletes as well as officials at the Olympics, another significant change has been the recognition that womens sports is finally, and belatedly, getting from the world media. According to the Sportstar, womans soccer was barely covered by the media in the 1996 Olympics and received practically no sponsorship. All this changed in 1999 when the Womens World Cup (held in the US) filled up huge stadiums - especially the exciting final between China and the US and ended any doubt that people in large numbers would pay to watch women play team sports. As a result, every minute of the womens soccer and softball matches was telecast during the Sydney Olympics!
But even if a few "stars" in womens sports, particularly the attractive ones such as the tennis player Anna Kournikova, who has earned more from advertising than through tournaments where her performance is very average, make a killing through sponsorship, womens sports is still given second class treatment, argues Kalpana Sharma of the Hindu. Womens prize money is also much less than for men. In fact, when Stacy Dagila won in the pole vault at the World Championships in Seville, Spain, last year, her prize money was exactly half of that given to the male champions. She was reported telling a journalist, "I hope we do not get half a medal at Sydney."
Sharma concludes her column by noting that equality in all spheres will be a long time coming. "But we can raise at least two cheers for the changes that have already taken place. The remaining cheer will have to wait until women are treated on par with men for their feats an the sports field and elsewhere." We take heart however, that it was a Sri Lankan woman who shone at the first Olympics of the 21st Century and Millennium. This is a fresh new era with tremendous possibilities and we are sure to see more Sri Lankan women coming to the forefront in many other fields as well. To have them treated on par with men for what they achieve however, will involve a much longer battle but the times they are a changing╔ finally.
Susanthika! First they demonized you, now they lionize you. But you are the real winner. Bravo!
|NEWS | FEATURES | OPINION | BUSINESS | EDITORIAL | CARTOON | SPORTS|