LONDON — In a way it was inevitable, given the size and scope of the event that is taking place in this most multicultural of capitals.
But the Olympic-sized political gaffes and cultural goofs already registered before the games officially opened Friday have proven one thing in the globalized planet of the early 21st century: Even with the best of intentions, organizing an offense-free Olympics is nearly impossible.
On Thursday, three issues rankled some Muslim activists:
* A “Welcome to London” street sign written in Arabic that was virtually indecipherable, with the characters written backward.
* A ruling that one of Saudi Arabia’s two female athletes couldn’t wear a headscarf for her judo competitions because of safety concerns.
* And an insistence that two Moroccan soccer players produce a urine sample for doping tests, even though they were fasting for Ramadan and needed more than two hours to produce it.
“The reason we won the games was because London was diverse, it’s where the world is represented,” said Mohammed Shafiq, head of the Manchester-based Ramadan Foundation, which seeks to forge understanding among Britain’s different communities.
“But,” he said, “we’re seeing decisions that are being made that will have a negative impact on the beliefs of Muslim athletes, and Muslim fans and officials.”
Already, the International Olympic Committee and Prime Minister David Cameron have apologized profusely for the most blatant mistake to date: displaying South Korea’s flag rather than North Korea’s on a giant screen ahead of Pyongyang’s inaugural women’s soccer match Wednesday night. The flap sent the North’s team off the pitch for an hour in protest.
On Thursday, two other geopolitical gaffes surfaced: Welsh soccer player Joe Allen was listed as English in the official program, and some athletes who were born in then-Soviet Ukraine were listed as having been born in the “Ukraine region” of Russia. Others were listed as coming from the Ukrainian cities of Lutsk and Lviv, which were described in the program as Russian. Similar mistakes were made for Georgia-born athletes.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Konstantin Grishchenko said Kiev’s embassy in London had complained to the IOC and requested corrections.
“The word ‘region’ is obviously excessive,” he tweeted, referring to the centuries of Russian dominance that ended when Ukraine gained its independence in 1991. “It’s an incompetent mistake even from the point of view of English grammar.”
London organizing spokeswoman Joanne Manning-Cooper acknowledged the mistakes but tried to put them in context.
“We’ve got 200 competing nations from all over the world, a multitude of religions,” she said. “Over the past seven years, we’ve worked hard to make sure this really is everyone’s games, no matter where you’re from or what your beliefs.”
Part of that involved creating a committee of representatives of different faiths to ensure no one would feel excluded by the games. But given the vast numbers of people and events involved — 650 sporting events, nearly 10,000 athletes over 17 days — mistakes are bound to happen.
“If we make mistakes, we fix them immediately and aim to ensure they never happen again,” she said.
For Saudi Arabia’s Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, it’s not so much a mistake as a safety ruling that could jeopardize her participation in the games.
On Thursday, the International Judo Federation ruled she couldn’t wear a headscarf during competition because of safety concerns given the strangleholds and chokeholds that are often used.
Shahrkhani is one of the first two Saudi women allowed to participate in the Olympics; the other, Sarah Attar is expected to wear a headscarf when she competes in distance running.
Asian judo federations have previously allowed Muslim women to wear the hijab during major competitions, but the IJF decided against it this time around.
“Someone wearing a headscarf could put their opponent at a disadvantage if the headscarf gets in the way and you’re not able to grip properly,” said Szandra Szogedi, a Hungarian fighter who just missed out on the Olympics and is helping the Hungarian team during the games.
Judo fighters typically struggle to get a grip on each other’s uniform and frequently reach behind their opponent’s head to get a dominant position on the base of their neck.
“But on the other hand, the headscarf could be dangerous for the woman wearing it, because if I try to strangle you and somehow pull your scarf around into a more dangerous position,” she said.
Shafiq, of the Ramadan Foundation, said allowances should be made particularly for people of different faiths.
“It’s not about political correctness,” he said. “It’s about being aware of the sensitivities around this, and positively embracing the diversity.”