PARIS - The inaugural edition of the Summer Olympiad took place in 1896 in Athens, Greece and involved 241 athletes from 14 countries, all of whom were male and either European, Australian or American.
Over a century later, the International Olympic Committee has made significant strides in embracing inclusivity, encompassing diverse races, nationalities, religions, and abilities into the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
However, as the upcoming Paris 2024 Summer Games draw near, they are bound to ignite passionate discourse around the true values of sport on and off the field.
Due to its fundamental doctrine of laïcité, a hardline interpretation of secularism, France remains one of the few nations that prohibit Muslim women from wearing the hijab in public spaces and in the sporting arena. Last month, girls were even banned from wearing the abaya in schools, with many sent home due to their religious wear.
Now, a crucial question thus looms over Paris 2024: Will France, while hosting this international competition, continue to enforce the restrictions it imposes on its own citizens? Will it attempt to extend its prohibition to the athletes of other nations as well?
We witnessed a sneak preview of this impending clash earlier this summer during the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Nouhaila Benzina, a Moroccan defender, made history as the first football player to wear a hijab at a FIFA World Cup.
Although initially a substitute for Morocco's opening match against Germany, she later played a pivotal role in bolstering the Atlas Lionesses' defence with outstanding performances.
In France, however, right-wing and sensationalist television channels like CNEWS and BFM TV provided platforms for polemicists to criticise and demean Benzina.
"The hijab signifies that a woman has to be prudish, and I agree that this is an incredible regression,” opined journalist Philippe Guibert.
France remains the only country in the world that upholds a ban on the hijab on the football field based on its interpretation of laïcité. Earlier this year the Council of State upheld the ban after it was challenged by grassroots footballers, claiming it was permissible to “avoid clashes”.
Since the hijab became a FIFA-authorised article of clothing on the football pitch in 2012, never has there been an incident where it has caused a clash or confrontation.
In response to global backlash, proponents of the French stance, like noted French physicist and feminist Annie Sugier, often cite article 4 of the FIFA statutes and article 50.2 of the Olympic Charter as proof that international sporting bodies themselves have justifications for banning the hijab built into their laws.
The argument Sugier makes is a precarious one. For instance, it is difficult to see how article 4 of the FIFA statutes, which bans any form of discrimination, could be interpreted as an argument to ban the hijab in the field of play.
In fact, it can definitely be argued that article 4 makes a stronger argument for allowing footballers to wear the hijab rather than banning it.
Article 50.2 of the Olympic Charter is a little more complex.
It reads, "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
Anyone with even cursory knowledge of the history of the Olympic Games knows that political and racial demonstrations have always existed both at the state level and at the individual level.
Actually, athletes in protest have often forged some of the most positive and memorable moments in Olympic lore. For example, everyone has seen the 1968 Black Power salute by John Carlos and Tommie Smith, which protested racial injustice in America.
There are even modern movements seeking to abolish 50.2 and promote athlete activism that conforms to the ideals of the Olympic Charter.
The other central problem with 50.2 is its wording. What exactly qualifies as propaganda? Does the personal decision of the length of an athlete’s uniform make them a religious propagandist?
According to many French politicians, it does.
The French Minister of Sport Amelie Oudéa-Castéra and former French Minister Delegate in charge of Citizenship Marlene Schiappa both claimed that the main justifications for banning the hijab in football is to nip proselytism in the bud.
Personally, I've yet to see any hijabi footballers try to actively convert their teammates or opponents on the pitch.
Furthermore, anyone with any knowledge of French football knows that the football pitch is not areligious. Male footballers of all religions openly pray before, during and after matches and no one lifts an eyebrow.
It isn’t at all rare to see Catholic players cross their chests as they step onto the pitch, or Muslim players do a grateful sajda after scoring a goal.
For decades, devout male Muslim footballers have grown their beards and worn spandex leggings to cover their bodies, but the extra bit of fabric on top of a women's head is what seems to have set the trigger off.
And that is the heart of the matter.
Proponents will argue that a hijab ban defends secularism, or prevents clashes, or even that it is somehow a hygiene issue.
But the uncomfortable naked truth is that the hijab ban in France is much more about an obsession with controlling women’s bodies and denying Muslim women agency to express themselves than it is about preserving neutrality in sport.
If such a ban is upheld for the Paris 2024 Games, it could affect several world-class athletes. Previous Olympic Games set the stage for iconic hijabi athletes such as Egyptian bronze medalists Hedaya Malak and Giana Farouk, and American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.
Those three, amongst many others, have become positive role models for little girls around the world. But that never would have happened were they banned from participating in the Olympics for nothing more than their headscarves.
So what will the International Olympic Committee do if France insists on a blanket ban of the hijab during Paris 2024? So far, no answers or official position have been issued.
Yet the longer this question is allowed to linger, the more harmful it will be to Muslim women in France and around the world, who are left to wonder whether the international community will stand by them in this assault on their liberty.
Maher Mezahi is an Algerian football journalist based in Marseille. He has covered North African football extensively, with his work published in international publications such as the BBC, The Guardian, The Times.
Opinion expressed in this article does not necessarily reflect that of the New Arab or CEMAS editorial board.