Let the Games Begin for Saudi Women
Female athletes from Saudi Arabia will compete in the London 2012 Olympics for the first time, despite earlier doubts.
The London 2012 Olympics will mark a new milestone in the history of women in sport. For the first time in Olympic history, every competing nation will include female athletes in their teams. Soon after Brunei and Qatar relented to International Olympic Committee (IOC) pressure, Saudi Arabia, the last holdout nation, agreed to open the gate to women participants. Less than two weeks before the Olympics were set to begin, the kingdom named two female athletes, runner Sarah Attar (800m) and judo athlete Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani (+78kg), to represent the conservative Islamic state.
The announcement came after heavy negotiations between Saudi Arabia and the IOC. The country was said to be nearly banned from participating in the games for refusing to allow women to compete in the 2012 Olympics.
Saudi officials last month announced that the country would allow female Saudi athletes who qualified for the Olympics to compete in the London games. But the country’s strict regulations on women’s participation in sport meant that, at the time, none were set to qualify – with the exception of equestrian athlete Dalma Rushdi Malhas. Dalma, who trains in France, won the bronze medal at the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympics. She was an Olympic hopeful for London, however due to an injury to her horse she missed the qualifying deadline.
It’s such a huge honour and I hope that it can really make some big strides for women over there to get more involved in sport
– Sarah Attar
Little information has been provided about Shahrkhani. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is known that at least one of the two athletes is based outside Saudi Arabia. Nineteen-year-old Sarah, born in California to a Saudi father and American mother, is currently attending Pepperdine University. Images on the university’s website of Sarah competing were recently taken down, apparently to avoid criticism from hardliners in Saudi Arabia who would disagree with her choice of clothing. Saudi officials have made it clear that Sarah and Shahrkhani must dress modestly when they compete in London. In a short video posted by the IOC, Sarah talks briefly about her thoughts on being one of the first two women to represent Saudi Arabia at the Olympics. ‘It’s such a huge honour and I hope that it can really make some big strides for women over there to get more involved in sport.’
This historic news immediately hit headlines around the world – except inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia itself. The silence from state media implied that, despite the recent progress in the realm of the Olympics, the fight for women’s participation in sport will remain an uphill battle in the nation.
As a landmark event for gender equality, London 2012 will also mark the first Olympics in which female athletes will compete in every sporting event, including boxing. Qatar, which is bidding to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, has even taken the extra step of choosing a female flag bearer, shooting prodigy Bahiya al-Hamad, for the opening ceremony on Friday. Setting the bar for other Islamic or Arab countries is Egypt, which will be sending 34 female athletes to the London Games, beating its own record of 29 sent to Beijing in 2008.
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