12 August 2008

MALI : Basketballers Get Olympic Shot

Mali, Africa's representative in the women basketball of the ongoing Olympic Games in Beijing, started their campaign on a losing note. The West Africans who are marking their inaugural appearance in Olympic basketball lost 76-72 to New Zealand.

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 the 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-metre 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.

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