Countering the earlier words of a Saudi prince who said that women could represent his country at the Olympics, Saudi Arabia's sports minister said his country won’t officially support female athletes.
"Female sports activity has not existed and there is no move thereto in this regard," Prince Nawaf Faisal said Wednesday at a news conference in the Saudi city of Jidda, according to Human Rights Watch. "At present, we are not embracing any female Saudi participation in the Olympics or other international championships."
The prince reportedly said Saudi Arabia would cooperate with Saudi women living abroad who wished to participate in the Olympic Games to ensure their actions "comported with Islamic law," but said the Saudi National Olympic Committee would not officially back the inclusion of women.
Saudi Arabia is one of three countries -- along with Brunei and Qatar -- that has never sent a woman to the Olympics. Human Rights Watch issued a scathing report earlier this year on the gauntlet of obstacles Saudi Arabia puts up to female athletes, including not holding gym classes for girls and shuttering private gyms for women.
Last month, Prince Nayef ibn Abdulaziz said women could stand for Saudi Arabia at the Olympics this summer as long as they didn't contradict Islamic law. Dalma Rushdi Malhas, a Saudi horseback rider raised in Italy who won a bronze medal at the Youth Olympics, was a widely rumored choice.
The human rights group argues that Saudi Arabia is not in compliance with the Olympic charter that bans discrimination. Simply including a woman or two on its Olympic team is not enough, it contends; Saudi Arabia must dismantle the systematic barriers to women taking part in sports.
"It is impossible to square Saudi discrimination against women with the noble values of the Olympic charter," Human Rights Watch researcher Christoph Wilcke said in a statement Thursday.
So far the International Olympic Committee has shied from ultimatums or deadlines to require Saudi Arabia to include female Olympians in order to attend the Games, instead holding talks over the matter.
"The IOC is confident that Saudi Arabia is working to include women athletes," it announced last month after Saudi Arabia proffered a list of possible Saudi female athletes to the committee.
Human Rights Watch wants the Olympic committee to discuss Saudi discrimination against female athletes at its next executive board meeting in May. The IOC could not be reached immediately for comment Thursday morning.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Members of the Jidda Kings United all-female team practice soccer in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. Credit: Courtesy of Reema Abdullah / Associated Press