Olympic Barriers: Will This Be The First-Ever Woman (And Muslim) IOC Chief?

Nawal El Moutawakel was ignored by Morocco when competing in the 1984 Olympics -- until gold made her a national hero. Now she's looking to clear another hurdle or two.

"To see a woman here would be innapropriate," said Baron Pierre de Coubertin...
"To see a woman here would be innapropriate," said Baron Pierre de Coubertin...
Giulia Zonca

Even a woman used to revolutions like Nawal El Moutawakel considers the idea of a female President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) a bit far-fetched. And there, in that traditional world, one so masculine and decidedly conservative that the times move at different rhythms.

The IOC has had eight Presidents in its more than 100-year history, and all have been male and almost all European. The only exception is American, Avery Brundage, who has hardly gone down in history for his democratic vision: He was head of the U.S. Olympic Committee when the States decided to substitute some Jewish athletes for the Games of Berlin in 1936, and was in charge of the IOC when Tommie Smith and John Carlos were stripped of their medals in 1968 for the Black Power salute.

After him, and after the terrible events of the Munich Massacre in 1972, the Committee returned to absolute rigor and the top position has always been occupied by a man from the "Old Continent"; an Irish Baron, a Spanish Francoist and a Belgian orthopaedic surgeon. Current President Jacques Rogge, the inscrutable Belgian, already represents the most progressive leader yet.

And if Rogge, an ex-athlete (he represented Belgium in the Olympics for yachting and played rugby for the national team) as well as a skilled mediator, might consider a break with the past, perhaps he could figure out how to encourage the nomination, which is still unofficial, of an African, a Muslim, a woman -- all in one name.

In 1984, Moroccan runner Nawal El Moutawakel changed history. She'd dreamed of competing in the 400-meter Olympic hurdles, but was faced with the fact that competing and winning were forbidden words for women in her native country. So El Moutakwakel set out for the Los Angeles Games without the support of Morocco, ashamed by her presence. That all changed when they saw her on the podium, awarded the gold medal. King Hassan II telephoned after she won: "To celebrate you, all girls born today will be named after you!"

From a "bad example" to a national icon whose fame has never wavered. But now she may come up against the most daring challenge yet: "Head of the IOC? Why not," she told La Stampa. "And now that women are equal, the future of sport is feminine. Look at London, equality in every discipline, including boxing, teams with a feminine majority and I'm talking about the U.S. and Germany."

The contenders have not been announced yet, another IOC rule, with candidates only made public in June, and the vote at the beginning of September. But it's clear that some support has begun to coalesce around El Moutawakel, a member of the committee since 1998 and Vice President since 2012.

Speaking from Brazil, where she's coodinating the committee that is monitoring Rio 2016 (she had a similar role for London 2012) she said: "I know that there are many candidates and that there is still a lot of time to decide, but I feel like the spokesperson of a movement." And it's not just of women, the circle that supports El Moutawakel is growing and even Rogge might line up behind her, as he has always praised her work.

The other top contenders include Rogge's right-hand man, Thomas Bach, a German who won gold in Montreal 1976 for fencing; Richard Carrion, 60, an economist and head of the Banco Popular of Puerto Rico, who has managed IOC funds and negotiated all the contracts; and Ng Ser Miang, 63, an IOC vice-president from China.

For El Moutawakel, it has been a steady climb to the cusp of potential worldwide sporting influence. She moved into politics after retiring from competition, and became Morocco's Sports Minister. In 1993, she organized a 10km pink "fun run," and now every year in Casablanca, 30,000 girls run in front of their husbands, fathers and brothers. She believes in diplomacy, the IOC school taught her to move with slyness and a refined calmness.

Still, she knows that even just admitting she wants the presidency will make noise. The odds are stacked against her, but she clearly thinks it's worth the effort. The original holder atop the modern Olympic hierarchy was Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a staunch supporter of a mens-only games: "To see a woman here would be innapropriate," he stated. While he was referring to the athletes, others today still think the same thing about the leadership of the Olympic Committee. But we should not forget that El Moutawakel, the former hurdler, has been clearing obstacles all her life.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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