An Olympic first: Female athletes competing for every country

For the first time in Olympic history, every country will have a woman competing on its team, including longtime holdout Saudi Arabia, the International Olympic Committee announced Thursday. Brunei and Qatar will also send female athletes to the London Games for the first time.

“The IOC has been striving to ensure a greater gender balance at the Olympic Games, and today’s news can be seen as an encouraging evolution,” President Jacques Rogge said in a statement. Fifteen years ago, 26 countries had not sent women; four years ago, that number had dwindled to three.

The historic announcement hinged on Saudi Arabia, which said last month it would allow female Olympians after months of talks with the International Olympic Committee.

But news quickly spread that the prime candidate rumored to compete for the country, equestrian show jumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas, wouldn't go because her horse had been injured, raising fears that no female athletes would represent Saudi Arabia despite its announcement.

Saudi pundits complained that the nation was being punished just because there were no Saudi sportswomen up to Olympic standards, something beyond the country's control. In an ongoing campaign, Human Rights Watch countered that so few women were eligible because Saudi Arabia still effectively bans women from playing sports; Malhas trained outside of Saudi Arabia for much of her life.

The nation later announced that two other women would compete for Saudi Arabia: runner Sarah Attar and judo athlete Wodjan Shahrkhani. Attar, now training in San Diego, was quoted by the IOC as saying she hoped the honor could “make some big strides for women over there to get more involved in sport.”

Bringing women into the games is a step toward better inclusion of women in Saudi sports -- but only a step, Human Rights Watch cautioned. Researcher Christoph Wilcke urged the International Olympic Committee to push for systemic change within the nation to nurture more female athletes.

In another sign of its continuing failure to allow girls and women equal access to athletics, a Saudi journal was refused permission to hold a women’s sports tournament in Jidda, despite promises to prevent mixing of the sexes and ensure modest dress, Human Rights Watch said.

“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 told Bloomberg. “The women were allowed to go just so Saudi Arabia won’t be banned from the Olympics.”

Saudi Arabia has also cautioned its female Olympians to dress modestly, not mix with men and stay with a male guardian during the games, reflecting strict rules in the highly religious country, where women are barred from driving and required to get male permission to work, study or travel.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

 
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