Saudis OK Women to Compete at Olympic Games For First Time

5 years ago

At the 5th Annual International Olympic Committee Conference on Women and Sport last month in Los Angeles, a big topic of conversation was whether Saudi Arabia violates the IOC charter on gender equality by not sending female athletes to the Games.

Is anybody else shocked that not all nations field women teams in the Olympics? In 2012?

A recent report by Human Rights Watch found that the Saudi government restrictions put sports beyond the reach of almost all women in the Gulf nation. There are no written laws that ban and restrict women from participating in sports in the Muslim nation, but Saudi Arabia follows a male-dominated puritan form of Islam that follows strict gender segregation.

The stigma of female athletes in Saudi Arabia is rooted in conservative tribal traditions and religious views.  There's no national organization to promote female athletics and physical education is not allowed in girls' schools. Women are also barred from driving or travelling aboard alone.

Saudi Arabia is one of three countries that has never included women in its Olympic teams, along with Qatar and Brunei.

Qatar announced last month that it will use IOC wild-card invitations to send at least two women — a swimmer and sprinter — to London. Two others could be added to the list.

Brunei is also expected to include women this time.

The IOC is now hopeful that all three nations will send females to London, marking the first time every competing delegation is represented by women.

The AP reports:

A Saudi Arabian newspaper says Crown Prince Nayef has approved plans for the conservative Muslim country to send female athletes to the Olympics for the first time at the London Games.

The Saudi-owned and London-based Al-Hayat newspaper says Nayef, who is heir to the aging king, has approved the participation of women at the London Olympics in sports that "meet the standards of women's decency and don't contradict Islamic laws."

Did Saudi Arabia only do this because the International Olympic Committee threatened to bar them from the London Olympics unless they allowed female competitors? Probably.

A warning was issued last year by Anita DeFrantz , who heads the IOC Women and Sports Commission, that any country that didn’t allow female athletes to compete would be barred from the global competition.

Credit Image: © Xinhua/

One potential contender for a place on the Saudi team could be 18 year old equestrian Dalma Rushdi Malhas, who won a bronze medal in show jumping at the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore. Malhas, who doesn't actually reside in Saudi Arabia, has competed without country affiliation in prior international riding competitions.

Equestrian competitions are less likely to cause uproar from conservatives in the kingdom since, contrary to diving or water polo, where swimsuits could raise problems, horseback riders are fully clothed and expose only their hands and faces.

If Saudi Arabia follows through, all national Olympic committees in London would include women athletes for the first time in Olympic history. About 204 national Olympic committees are expected to compete in London, representing 10,500 athletes.

Great strides? Baby steps is more accurate. The HRW reminds us that the concession should not blind the IOC to the need for a much more systemic plan to end discrimination against Saudi women in sports.

Will be interesting to see what kind of steps are made by 2016.


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