Bloomberg News

Saudi Arabia to Send Olympic Women Athletes for First Time

July 12, 2012

Saudi Arabia will send female athletes to the Olympic Games for the first time, the International Olympic Committee said, ending a ban by the kingdom where women aren’t allowed to drive.

Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani will compete in judo at the London Games and Sarah Attar will run the 800 meters. The athletes, who were invited by the IOC, were submitted by the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee before the July 9 deadline, the IOC said. The Saudis had previously sent all-male teams.

“This is very positive news and we are delighted to welcome these two athletes in London in a few weeks’ time,” IOC President Jacques Rogge said in a statement on the governing body’s website.

King Abdullah has introduced changes to the kingdom since he came to power in 2005, facing resistance from the religious establishment. He has granted women the right to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections and has said women will be selected as members in the Consultative Council, a body appointed by the king that acts like a parliament.

“The decision to allow women to participate in the Olympics is part of the path of reform the king is following,” Mohammed Al-Zulfa, a former member of the Consultative Council, said in a telephone interview from Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia joins Qatar and Brunei in sending female athletes to the London Games after the three were the only countries not to have any in Beijing in 2008.

Wahhabi Version

“With Saudi Arabian female athletes now joining their fellow female competitors from Qatar and Brunei Darussalam, it means that by London 2012 every national Olympic committee will have sent women to the Olympic Games,” Rogge said.

Saudi Arabia, which has the world’s second-largest proven crude reserves after Venezuela, according to data from BP Plc (BP/), enforces restrictions that are interpreted from the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. Women can’t travel or get an education without male approval or mix with unrelated men in public places.

Saudi athletes at the Olympics will be required to follow Islamic dress code and should be accompanied by a male relative, the al-Jazirah newspaper reported on July 2, citing Prince Nawaf bin Faisal, head of the General Presidency of Youth Welfare.

Breakthrough

“They send two women to the Olympics and at home they don’t allow women’s sports clubs and physical education in girls’ schools,” Saudi activist Khulud al-Fahd said in a telephone interview. “The women were allowed to go just so Saudi Arabia won’t be banned from the Olympics.”

The decision is a “breakthrough” for Saudi women’s sports, Human Rights Watch said in an e-mailed statement today. “But without policy changes to allow women and girls to play sports and compete within the kingdom, little can change for millions of women and girls deprived of sporting opportunities,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, according to the statement.

Saudi Arabia had been under pressure from the IOC to include female athletes.

“The IOC has been working very closely with the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee and I am pleased to see that our continued dialogue has come to fruition,” Rogge said.

Attar was born and raised in Escondido, California, according to her profile on Pepperdine University’s athletics website.

“A big inspiration for participating in the Olympic Games is being one of the first women for Saudi Arabia to be going,” the 17-year-old said at her training base in San Diego, according to a statement on the IOC website. “It’s such a huge honor and I hope it can really make some big strides for women over there to get more involved in sport.”

About 10,500 athletes from more than 200 nations will compete at the London Olympics, which begin on July 27.

To contact the reporters on this story: Bob Bensch in London at bbensch@bloomberg.net; Donna Abu-Nasr in Beirut at dabunasr@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Christopher Elser at celser@bloomberg.net.


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