No Saudi women at Olympic Games
Saudi Arabia will not send any female athletes to the 2012 Olympic Games in London, dashing hopes by event organisers that the kingdom would be represented by a co-ed team for the first time.
The pan-Arab, Saudi-owned daily, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, reported on Sunday that no Saudi women had qualified for the track, equestrian or weightlifting events at the Games, which begin on July 27.
Yesterday, a member of the Saudi Arabia National Olympic Committee confirmed that the kingdom would not field women, seeming to rule out a waiver that would have allowed female athletes to participate even without qualifying.
"We have no female athletes" going to the Games, said the official, who declined to be named.
If the decision holds, Saudi Arabia will be the only nation represented by a "men-only" team, after Qatar and Brunei diversified their contingent for London.
Yesterday's comments by the Saudi Olympic official followed a series of sometimes confusing and apparently contradictory statements from Saudi officials.
The head of the country's Olympic Committee, Prince Nawaf bin Faisal, said in April that he did "not endorse female participation".
But two weeks ago, the Saudi embassy in London announced that any women who qualified would be permitted to compete. The embassy declined to comment yesterday.
Many observers and rights groups hailed the embassy's announcement, which appeared to pave the way for making the London Games the first in history in which every national team had both men and women competing.
Writing in Saudi's Al Watan newspaper, the columnist Maram Abdelrahman Meccawy praised women's participation in sports as a "long-awaited right".
Human Rights Watch, the US-based group that had led calls for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia for its failure to let women participate, called the move "an important step forward".
But many observers feared the late change in policy would not give women sufficient time to prepare for the Games.
The country's strongest candidate for participation was the rider Dalma Rushdi Malhas, 20, who the International Equestrian Federation said had failed to qualify last month after her horse fell ill. She has promised to work towards competing in 2016.
Despite Malhas's failure to qualify, Saudi sports officials had the option to nominate one or more female athletes for so-called "universality" slots, which are allotted to ensure broad representation at the Games even for nations without strong athletic programmes. Under this waiver, the athlete is not required to meet the general qualifying standards for their event.
Mark Adams, communications director of the IOC, said he remained "optimistic" that Saudi Arabia's delegation would include a female.
These universality slots can be filled up to the last minute, and could still leave a final opportunity for the Saudi team to be co-ed.
"We remain in close touch, even speaking to the [Saudi] National Olympic Committee today and we remain very positive," Mr Adams said.
Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, said a single-gender Saudi team would be "a big black eye for the IOC and the London Games, because so much effort has been put into making 2012 the year when there are no 'men-only' teams competing".
"This is a direct consequence of Saudi policy. There are many Saudi women who aspire to compete," she added.
An increasing number of Saudi women have pushed for greater participation in sport and started leagues in recent years.
Last week, Fifa, football's governing body, lifted its ban on women wearing the hijab during play - opening the door to international competition by Saudi women.
More Olympics, pages s7-10
Updated: July 11, 2012 04:00 AM