Once Banned, Women Now Center Stage at Games
Diana Gandega and the other members of the Mali women's basketball team received a house and bonus for qualifying for the Olympics.Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images
By Jeré Longman
Aug. 9, 2008
BEIJING — The West African nation of Mali lost to New Zealand, 76-72, in its inaugural appearance in Olympic basketball on Saturday, playing with the fumbling hands of a diner on a first encounter with chopsticks.
Still, Mali scored valuable points for the continued emergence of women at the Games, which once shunned them entirely.
For winning the 2007 African championships and qualifying for the Beijing Games, each Mali player was awarded a house and prize money.
“Not a thousand dollars or two thousand dollars,” said the team captain, Hamchetou Maiga-Ba, who also plays for the Houston Comets in the W.N.B.A. But even a smaller amount would not be inconsiderable in one of the world’s poorest countries, where the average annual income is $1,500.
“Everybody is proud of us, even the guys,” said Maiga-Ba, 30, a forward who played at Old Dominion and is an iconic female sports figure in Mali, a predominantly Muslim country where women are subject to traditional subservience, genital mutilation, inequitable access to education and household violence.
“Things are getting better,” she said. “Before, women in Senegal could have children and keep playing. In Mali, you stopped. Now women keep playing. It’s changing a lot.”
And not only in Africa. Women were not allowed to participate at the 1896 Summer Games in Athens, the first Olympics of the modern era.
They were expected to contribute applause, not athletic skill. Not until 1984 were women permitted to run the Olympic marathon, in reefer-madness fear that they might grow old too soon with such exertion; or worse, they might grow a mustache.
Or their uterus would fall out, as if it were a transmission.
Now, women have become must-see TV at the Olympics, as well as the target viewing audience for NBC. Of the 11,427 athletes participating in these Games, 4,845 are women — 500 more than in Athens four years ago, 1,000 more than competed in Atlanta 12 years ago. Who could not be drawn to the swimmer Dara Torres’s attempt to hit the snooze button on the biological alarm clock at age 41?
On Saturday, China’s gold rush was postponed when Katerina Emmons of the Czech Republic defeated, among others, the 2004 Olympic champion in the women’s 10-meter air rifle, Du Li. Minutes later, Chen Xiexia cleaned-and-jerked China back on schedule with her victory in weight lifting.
Also Saturday morning, Mali finally got its first shot at women’s basketball, which became an Olympic sport in 1976 and waited two decades before an African team, Nigeria, qualified for a Summer Games. Since 1996, the continent has won one game and lost 19. But this is a developing stage. Regular participation must come before reliable victory.
On Friday night, with the opener only hours away, Mali’s basketball players dressed in flowing white robes and marched with the world’s other athletes in the spectacular opening ceremony. So what if they got home after midnight. It wasn’t sleep deprivation but ball-control deprivation that later cost them a victory, with 26 turnovers in 40 minutes.
“To be part of the Olympics is a gift for us,” Jose Valentin Ruiz, Mali’s coach, said. “The opening ceremonies are very inspirational. We all wanted to be part of them.”
The ceremony also revealed that equality for women in sports is a marathon, not a sprint. Saudi Arabia and Qatar marched into the stadium as usual, with no women on their teams. Young Chinese women served as cheerleader props, ringing the infield of National Stadium as authoritarian eye candy.
There was an absent reminder, too, that female athletes have sometimes fallen prey to the same illicit temptations as men. Just eight years ago Marion Jones won five medals, three of them gold, as America’s most decorated sprinter at the Sydney Olympics. If she watched the opening ceremony in Beijing, it was from a federal prison, for lying to federal authorities about taking steroids and participating in a check-fraud scheme.
At least several current female Olympians — including the Australian basketball star Lauren Jackson, the American swimmer Amanda Beard and the American high jumper Amy Acuff — have followed a post-feminist career arc, posing nude to show off their strong bodies, but risking the leer as much as the cheer. African women, of course, have long struggled against more onerous cultural perceptions and restrictions than women in the West. Not until 1984 did an African woman — the 400-meter hurdler Nawal el-Moutawakel of Morocco — win an Olympic gold medal. It was 1992 before a black African woman gained the top step on the medal podium, when Derartu Tulu won the 10,000 meters (6.2 miles) at the Barcelona Games.
In Mali, Maiga-Ba said, some of her friends had to give up basketball because their Muslim fathers did not want them playing in shorts. Her parents were more moderate; her mother played basketball and encouraged her daughter to follow. Soccer is the national sport, but 10,000 or so women have begun to gravitate toward the round ball that is dribbled instead of kicked.
There is only one indoor court — the National Stadium in the capital, Bamako — but the outdoor game is growing in popularity, Maiga-Ba said. If no basketball is available, a soccer ball or a plastic ball will do.
“Anything that bounces,” she said.
On Saturday Mali lost its best chance at victory in this Olympic tournament, collapsing at the end of both halves. After leading her team with 18 points, Maiga-Ba was whistled for traveling in the lane with two seconds remaining and her team down, 74-72. Afterward she seemed tired but still not deflated.
“We are here to learn,” Maiga-Ba had said before the game. “We have to be realistic. But we are not scared. Maybe the other teams are better, but we are here to represent our country.”
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