Saudi Arabia one step closer to letting women compete in London Games

It looks like some Saudi women athletes will be allowed to compete in London this summer. According to the New York Times,

A pan-Arab newspaper based in London, Al-Hayat, reported Tuesday that the Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz has approved the participation of female athletes in London as long as their sports “meet the standards of women’s decency and don’t contradict Islamic laws.”

The International Olympic Committee said in a statement that it met with Saudi Olympic officials last week and that it was “confident that Saudi Arabia is working to include women athletes and officials at the Olympic Games in London.”

This would be the first time that women have been allowed to represent Saudi Arabia in the Olympics, and it would represent a step forward for women who struggle to be athletes in a culture that suppresses them.

According to Human Rights Watch, “Saudi officials systematically discriminated against women, providing no physical education for girls in state schools, closing gyms for women in 2009 and 2010 and forcing them to play in underground leagues.”

The lead author of that report, Christoph Wilcke, told the Times that the addition of a few women athletes to the Saudi delegation would be welcome, but not sufficient. “While tokenistic participation is welcome, it wouldn’t change our position that the I.O.C. should affect more systemic change,” he said.

Nothing is set in stone yet, but the situation is promising:

A list of several potential athletes for the London Games was presented by Saudi officials to the I.O.C. last week. That list will be examined by international sports federations, which give consent to Olympic participants. A formal proposal for the inclusion of female Saudi athletes at the London Games will be made to the I.O.C.’s executive board in Quebec City in late May.

These athletes will most likely find it difficult or impossible to meet Olympic qualifying standards, given their lack of international experience. But the I.O.C. has long granted participation under special conditions to athletes from developing nations. And it is under significant pressure to make accommodations for Saudi women in London.

Saudi Arabia, like Qatar and Brunei, has never sent a woman athlete to the Games, even as it has allowed men to represent it. This year, with any luck, the list of such countries will be whittled down to just one, because Brunei is also planning to send its first woman athlete.

Brunei has filed the necessary paperwork to send Maziah Mahusin, a 19-year-old track athlete, to London in August. Mahusin, who trains and competes without a headscarf, would not have a shot at a medal. She finished last in her 400-metre heat at the last World Championships. But she would be allowed to compete under the I.O.C.’s concept of universality – the same policy that would make it possible for Saudi women athletes who do not meet international standards to participate in London.

Here’s hoping that Mahusin, along with some Saudi women athletes, gets to go to London. And here’s hoping that Qatar gets with the program, and fast.


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