Saudi Arabia and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have announced the kingdom, in a reversal of positions, will send two female athletes to the London 2012 Games. The announcement means that every national Olympic team competing in the British capital will now include women.
The IOC announced Wednesday that Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani will represent Saudi Arabia in the over-78 kilogram women’s judo competition. Sarah Attar will represent the kingdom in the women’s 800 meters athletics competition.
“It is very important,” IOC President Jacques Rogge said Wednesday. “You know, it’s a human right. Women have the right to practice sport, they want to practice, they love sport; they are attracted to sport. And we must make sure that barriers are broken down,” he added.
Sarah Attar, athletics
At a training compound in San Diego, California, the 17-year-old Attar said being one of the first Saudi women to compete in the Olympics has been a driving force in her preparations.
“It is such a huge honor and I hope that it can really make some big strides over there to get more involved in sport,” she said, according to a release by the IOC.
Attar said she knows women and girls in the kingdom will be watching her in London.
“I definitely think that my participation in these Olympic Games can increase women’s participation in sports in general,” she said. “I can only hope for the best for them and that we can really get some good strides going for women in the Olympics further,” Attar added.
News of the Saudi women’s participation comes after the Saudi-owned newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat Arabia said this week that no female athletes have qualified for the Olympics and no women would be included on the team. It had been thought that equestrian jumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas would be the first Saudi woman to compete, but she failed to meet the Olympic standard in her event.
Attar and Shahrkhani were invited to the Games by the International Olympic Committee and were entered by the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee by the official deadline of July 9, 2012.
Human rights organizations – including Human Rights Watch - had been pressing for Saudi Arabia to be banned from the London Games because not sending women, they said, violated the Olympic Charter. However, IOC President Rogge said Wednesday’s announcement came after intense negotiations and dialogue with the Saudi government.
“We had a good dialogue with them and we were able to persuade them to send women to the Games,” Rogge said. “This is a very important decision because it is a very symbolic one. These are the first women of this country to participate in the Games, and they will be seen in their home country as role models, and more will follow of course,” Rogge added.
In a statement Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said the decision was a breakthrough for Saudi women’s sports. However, the New York-based group added that there are “still no signs of any advance in ending an effective ban on women and girls practicing sports inside the kingdom.”
Qatar sends four women
Saudi Arabia joins Qatar and Brunei in sending their first female competitors to the Olympics. In 2008 in Beijing, the three nations were the only countries in the Olympic movement not to send women.
This year, Nada Arkaji will represent Qatar in swimming, Noor al-Malki in athletics, Aya Magdy in table tennis and Bahiya al-Hamad in shooting. Al-Hamad will also carry Qatar’s flag in the Opening Ceremonies.
At her training center, Arkaji said that the news that she was going to London was almost too much to believe.
“Everything happened so fast,” she said. “It’s like a dream. When I was younger I always said to myself ‘oh I wish I would be in the Olympics.’ And look at me now. So I am very happy,” Arkaji said.
Bahiya al Hamad, who also competed for Qatar at the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore, said that she wants to perform at her best in London.
“In any championship whether it is an Arabic championship or a Gulf championship, my feeling is since I represent Qatar I have to achieve,” she said. “To go to the Olympics is a huge thing for me. The girls who like sports always love to participate in championships which represent a dream for them. To dream like Bahiya al Hamad who dreamt of participating in the Olympics and God guided her to achieving her goal,” al-Hamad added.
Brunei follows suit
Brunei will also break the gender barrier by sending runner Maziah Mahusin to compete in athletics. Mahusin competed for Brunei in the 2010 World Youth Olympics, and she says being the first woman to represent her country is a great honor.
“I feel very proud of myself, and I feel honored,” she said. “It’s kind of like being an ambassador for my country. I want to make history for my country, Brunei, to be the first female athlete to represent my country at the Olympics. And I am looking forward also to setting my personal best for the Olympics and for Brunei,” Mahusin added.
The announcement by Saudi Arabia and the IOC means that all 205 national Olympic teamscompeting in the London Games will include both men and women.
Sixteen years ago at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, in the U.S state of Georgia, 26 national teams had no female athletes. In Beijing, only three teams – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei – did not have women represented. Female participation at the Olympics has risen from 1.8 percent in the 1908 London Games to more than 42 percent in Beijing, according to the IOC.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Olympic Committee announced that at the 2012 Games women would for the first time outnumber men on the U.S. team.
The London Olympics open July 27.