Women, Minorities Win IOC Seats, Still Face Hurdles
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.
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.”
After age and knee surgery ended her career in 1987, El Moutawakel took a job with the Moroccan Sports Ministry and began her training in bureaucracy. Always polite, always persistent, this woman with black hair and dark eyes campaigned for female athletes.
Brandishing the Koran, she recited stories about how the prophet Muhammad competed against his wife in archery, swimming and horseback riding. First, she lobbied Moroccan officials and then, as a volunteer with the international track and field federation, she took her message to other Muslim nations.
“Nowhere in our religion is it stated that women should stay at home and only men should practice sports,” she said. “It is difficult to push these guys, but I kept pushing and pushing.”
A Bigger Stage
When the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar wanted to host a major track meet, El Moutawakel helped negotiate a deal: The track federation would sanction a meet in Qatar only if government officials loosened the policies that prohibited women from competing before male audiences or even attending sporting events.
Foreign women were allowed to compete after they agreed to wear outfits that covered their midriffs. This new kind of victory gave El Moutawakel goose bumps.
She also spoke to Qatari women who wanted to engage in sports, advising them to meet society halfway, to wear modest shorts and tops.
“You must respect the culture, but you must break through,” she said. “If we start with Qatar, sooner or later Kuwait will join and then the United Arab Emirates.”
Always she sought a bigger stage, becoming a full-fledged council member in the track federation, then volunteering for Olympic groups.
“It was not easy, because you are still considered a woman and an athlete, someone who has nothing to share with the men who have been around for years,” she said. “But I was very patient . . . and very ambitious.”
Too ambitious, some Moroccan officials grumble. They complain privately that El Moutawakel seems more interested in traveling the globe than spending time with her own nation’s athletes. Said one official: “We never even see her anymore.”
El Moutawakel says her work abroad benefits all Arabs--Moroccans included--in a sports world that has shown little respect for their culture. The IOC, she says, is dominated not only by Europeans but also, to a lesser degree, by Americans with their television and corporate money.
Anita DeFrantz, the senior U.S. member and an IOC vice president, countered: “We have at least 75 different cultures. We have different age groups. It’s important to have people speaking from their perspectives.”
But an incident at the 1996 Atlanta Games proved to El Moutawakel that the IOC needed a stronger Arab voice.
That summer, a group called Atlanta Plus asked the IOC to ban nations such as Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan for discriminating against female athletes.
Though Atlanta Plus was fighting a battle dear to her heart, El Moutawakel took offense because she believed that the Paris-based group was acting without due respect for Arab and Islamic ways.
“We have our own opinions, our own traditions,” she said. “Sometimes it is very difficult for me to understand how some Europeans can impose a certain conduct on us.”
El Moutawakel joined the IOC with additional issues in mind. She wanted to work on deals like the one in Qatar, to lure more IOC funding and high-profile events to Arab and African nations. It hasn’t been simple.
Though she was elected in 1998, her first real duty wasn’t until last winter, when she attended an emergency session. The membership filled long rows of tables inside the Palais de Beaulieu, a cavernous hall where Samaranch’s face was projected onto a giant screen as he spoke.
El Moutawakel was almost dizzied by the scene and the momentous vote on how to reform the IOC after members were accused of accepting gifts from the Salt Lake City bid team.
“I was just watching all the agitation,” she said. “It was like a volcano.”
Being a freshman delegate is tricky in the best of times. DeFrantz recalled her first session, in 1986: “There are no rules and no real orientation. . . . It seems like everyone knows something you don’t.”
When Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the modern Olympic movement, he envisioned the committee as a series of concentric circles. Newcomers begin on the outside, in what one expert calls “the nursery.”
These members work slowly toward the center--the powerful commissions and executive board--where key decisions are made.
“It takes time to penetrate the inner circles,” said Alfred Erich Senn, author of “Power, Politics and the Olympic Games.” “New members are supposed to keep their mouths shut and not antagonize.”
El Moutawakel has mainly watched and listened while serving on IOC commissions that deal with marketing and women in sports. Though many members know of her athletic achievements, she has made a point of introducing herself in corridors, at dinners and at athletic events--where much of the IOC’s work gets done.
More than anything, El Moutawakel has kept in mind an old Moroccan saying: “One hand does not clap. You need both.” This is her reminder to move slowly, to respect senior members. “We are not there to push the older ones out,” she said.
This sort of talk rankles critics, such as Senn, who fret that the new generation may be seduced into old ways of doing business. They note that several newcomers were swept up in the Salt Lake City scandal and were expelled or resigned.
Path to Reform
El Moutawakel has a secret: When the scandal broke, a part of her was glad.
She speaks of such matters on a relaxed Saturday morning in a suburban home that seems far from the rumble of the city. It is a traditional Casablancan house, the outside plain white, the rooms adorned with ornate rugs and upholstered in plush reds and blues and gold.
Her son and daughter, Reda and Zineb, quarrel over the television remote control in the next room. Her husband, Mounir--who imports and exports wood--smokes a cigarette on the couch beside her.
“When Nawal has an objective, she fights for it,” Mounir said. “Very calmly, but she fights.”
El Moutawakel explains over sweet mint tea and raisin cookies: Although she sympathizes with colleagues who were disciplined, she believes that the scandal forced the IOC onto a path toward reform.
“The IOC was like this pyramid that had been there for ages,” she said. “What happened was very sorry, but it makes you think, it makes you review your behavior.”
New member or not, El Moutawakel says she won’t sit quietly and let the old ways go unchallenged.
“I do not have to be intimidated,” she said. “If I am there to be a doll, just occupying a space, I don’t accept that.”
Times staff writer Alan Abrahamson contributed to this article.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Nawal el Moutawakel
El Moutawakel is one of a new generation of International Olympic Committee members. Many are women and athletes, and hail from Third World nations. They represent change for an organization long regarded as a clique of European elite.
“In the past the IOC was very Western European and Americanized. It used to be layers of princes and princesses and rich people. We were knocking on the door saying, ‘Hey, we want to get in.”’
--Nawal el Moutawakel
Nawal el Moutawakel
* Born: April 15, 1962
* Residence: Casablanca, Morocco
* Education: Iowa State University, 1988, bachelor’s degree in physical education
* Career highlights: Won a gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Later crusaded for rights of women athletes in Arab and Islamic countries. Among the first women elected to the International Amateur Athletic Foundation, the governing body of track and field, in 1995. Became an IOC member in 1998
* Interests: Jogging, horseback riding and squash
* Family: Husband, Mounir, and children Zineb, 8, and Reda, 5
Source: Moutawakel, IOC, Iowa State University.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
A European Institution
Since Juan Antonio Samaranch’s election as IOC president in 1980, the number of voting members has grown to 113. Europeans dominated the membership rolls before Samaranch took over. They still do.
Source: IOC; Amateur Athletic Foundation
Note: Six of the 10 IOC members who resigned or were expelled during the Salt Lake City scandal were from Africa. Rene Essomba, a seventh African delegate implicated in the scandal, died in late 1998. An eighth, Louis Guirandou-N’Diaye, reprimanded by the IOC, died last year.
About This Series
For decades, the Olympic movement has promoted itself as the United Nations of sport, a force for fair play. Then came reports of gift-giving and other corruption in Salt Lake City’s bid for the 2002 Winter Games. As disturbing questions swirled around the International Olympic Committee, The Times embarked on a yearlong examination of the movement: Who runs the IOC? How does the organization spend its money? How does it treat athletes? Can the IOC really change its ways?
This is the fourth of seven weekly reports leading to the Sydney Games.
Week 1--Struggle behind the Games: While the IOC brings in almost $1 billion a year, little trickles down to athletes in developing nations.
Week 2--All About Money: Mighty nations and sports get a disproportionate share of IOC money through power politics and side deals.
Week 3--Man behind the IOC: The private side of IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch as he confronts his damaged legacy.
Today--The IOC’s New Breed
Next week--Deal that had it All
Complete series on line at www.latimes.com/ioc