The Modern Olympics just got a hell of a lot more modern

The BBC reports that after much speculation, Saudi Arabia will finally allow women to compete at the Olympics this year:

The public participation of women in sport is still fiercely opposed by many Saudi religious conservatives.

There is almost no public tradition of women participating in sport in the country.

Saudi officials say that with the Games now just a few weeks away, the only female competitor at Olympic standard is showjumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas.

But they added that there may be scope for others to compete and that if successful they would be dressed “to preserve their dignity”.

In practice this is likely to mean modest, loose-fitting garments and “a sports hijab”, a scarf covering the hair but not the face.

For the desert kingdom, the decision to allow women to compete in the Olympics is a huge step, overturning deep-rooted opposition from those opposed to any public role for women.

Like Brunei, which is sending its fielding its first ever woman Olympian this year, Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a shot at a medal. But – and I know this is a real cliché about the Olympics, so bear with me – the Games are about more than winning medals. Yes, we love to see an underdog win, but we also love to see an underdog just show up, especially if it’s against the odds, and do their best.

The most encouraging thing about this development is that it appears to be the result of both external pressure and internal reform. According to BBC:

For the past six weeks there have been intense, behind-the-scenes discussions led by King Abdullah, who has long been pushing for women to play a more active role in Saudi society…

“It’s very sensitive,” a senior Saudi official told the BBC. “King Abdullah is trying to initiate reform in a subtle way, by finding the right balance between going too fast or too slow…”

The official acknowledged that to refuse to let women take part would have looked bad on the international stage.

“Partly because of the mounting criticism we woke up and realised we had to deal with this. We believe Saudi society will accept this,” the official said.

Another country that’s sending women to the Games for the first time: Qatar. I wrote back in March that it seemed that Qatar would be the only remaining country that does not allow women to represent it at the Games. I’m pleased to say that is no longer the case. Bahiya Al-Hamad, a rifle-shooter, Nada Arjaki, a swimmer, and Noor al-Malki, a sprinter, will become the first women to represent Qatar at an Olympic Games.

That means that there are now no countries remaining in the world who do not allow women to represent them at the Olympics. And that means that the Modern Olympic Games just got a hell of a lot more modern. Women like Al-Hamad, Arjaki, al-Malki, and Brunei’s sprinter Maziah Mahusin, and Saudi Arabia’s Malhas won’t be competing on an even playing field. We’ve got a long way to go before we can honestly say that. But they will be competing, and that’s a damn good start.

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