With just a month until the London Games, Saudi Arabia has announced that women will be allowed to compete in the Summer Olympics, responding to international pressure and criticism.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is looking forward to its complete participation” in the Olympic Games, the Saudi Embassy in London said in a statement. “The Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee...will oversee the participation of women athletes who can qualify for the games.”
The gesture may be more symbolic than anything else. The sudden change, while opening the door for female Saudi athletes, gives them little time to prepare for the London games. Only one athlete, equestrian show jumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas, is widely considered ready to compete at the Olympic level right now.
Human Rights Watch called the move “an important step,” but noted that Saudi women are still institutionally discriminated against in the Muslim country.
“An 11th hour change of course to avoid a ban does not alter the dismal and unequal conditions for women and girls in Saudi Arabia,” its director of global initiatives, Minky Worden, said in a Los Angeles Times article.
In a country with strict religious views and persistent discrimination against women, officials have been consistently denying the possibility of female athletes competing in the Olympics, reports USA Today. Saudi Arabia, along with Qatar and Brunei, are the only countries competing in the 2012 games that have never sent women to the Olympics.
Malhas will not compete at the Olympics because she failed to meet eligibility standards, the International Equestrian Federation told USA Today.
Female athletes in judo and in track and field are considered possibilities, said sports officials who spoke to the Associated Press. Yet Saudi women may not meet the international qualifying standards, and thus would require special approval from the International Olympic Committee to compete.
This year, both Qatar and Brunei will send women to the London games. If arrangements are made for Saudi Arabia, then all national teams in London would include woman athletes for the first time in Olympic history.
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