Saudis to let woman compete in Olympics

Kingdom hopes one female athlete will assuage demands for gender equality.

2012 London Olympics logo. (photo credit: Reuters)
2012 London Olympics logo.
(photo credit: Reuters)
Saudi Arabia has agreed to let one female athlete join their all-male delegation to the 2012 Olympics in a bid to block threats to bar them from the games if they didn’t let women participate.
The move came after a warning last year by Anita DeFrantz , who heads the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Women and Sports Commission, that any country that didn’t allow female athletes to compete would be barred from the global competition.
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With 35 weeks to go before the games begin in London, the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee has announced that woman can join the team, but with the caveat that they be living abroad. Saudi Arabia has never sent a woman to the Olympics and the kingdom forbids women from participating in sports in state-run schools. There is also no federation that organizes women’s sports.
“[If] some of the female athletes who are living in Europe qualify to the Olympics through international federations or IOC, then we will step in to support them,” an official from the SAOC told The Media Line.
Besides Saudi Arabia, DeFrantz also targeted Qatar and Brunei since those three countries out of 205 were the only ones who have never been sent any women to the games since female competitors made their debut in 1900. In July, Qatar caved in and said it hoped to be sending four female athletes to the shooting and fencing competitions in London.
Brunei, a tiny Southeast Asia nation, only participated in the 1988 Olympics and failed to register any athletes in 1992 or 2008. When it did manage to qualify, it only sent male athletes.
Some 42% of the athletes in Beijing’s 2008 Olympics were female. In the Middle East, women have only marginally been involved in sports, largely due to social, traditional and religious issues. Islamic countries have only in the past decades started to include small numbers of women in their Olympic teams: Iran and Pakistan in 1996, Bahrain in 2000, Afghanistan and Kuwait since 2004, and the United Arab Emirates and Oman since 2008.
With the changes sweeping the Middle East, women’s rights appear to be the most to change as leftist, pro-democracy groups confront Islamists who seek a more traditionally conservative role for women.
Saudi Arabia, which follows a male-dominated puritan form of Islam that bars women from driving or travelling aboard alone follows strict gender segregation, is the last to buckle under to IOC demands. Since it is seeking athletes who live abroad, Saudi Arabia's most likely Olympic female athlete is reportedly Dalma Rushdi Malhas, an 18-year-old equestrienne who won a bronze medal in the 2010 Singapore Youth Olympics. At that time, Malhas did not officially represent the kingdom.
“I didn’t know whether I was allowed but when I got invited of course I didn’t think twice and went at my own expense. I didn’t care much about me being there as a representative of Saudi Arabia, because anyone could probably do that. But getting a medal was the key, and that’s not easy for anyone, and I wanted that — and only that gives recognition to my country,” she told the Arab News.
Equestrian competitions are also 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, albeit in trousers, and expose only their hands and faces.
“Fielding a female equestrian at the London Olympics may take Saudi Arabia off the IOC's hook, but changes little on the ground in the kingdom itself. That remains an uphill battle particularly with an ageing and ailing top leadership that this year has significantly increased the religious establishment's funding as part of its bid to shield Saudi Arabia from the wave of anti-government protests,” wrote James Dorsey, who blogs about Middle East sports.
Ali Al-Ahmed, a Saudi dissident and director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, launched a campaign called “No women. No Play,” and called on the IOC to keep to its standards and bar any country that doesn’t field women athletes.
“While the hypothetical example of participating countries barring black athletes from the Olympic Games would have rightly caused international outrage, the committee continues to allow the participation of countries that do not allow women on their Olympic teams,” he wrote on his website. 
Dorsey, a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said there is a push by women to engage in sports in the kingdom, but conservative forces often cancel them when the clergy gets wind of them for being “satanic” and spreading decadence. 
“Clerics warned that running and jumping can damage a woman's hymen and ruin her chances of getting married. In defiance, women have quietly been establishing soccer and other sports teams using extensions of hospitals and health clubs as their base,” Dorsey wrote.