Column: Baby Olympic step or giant leap for women?

March 29, 2012

A giant leap for a few women, but only a small step for womankind?

If the International Olympic Committee has its way, and as overseer of this party, there's reason to think it will, then the London Olympics will be the first where Saudi Arabia fields women competitors as well as men.

Female Saudi athletes - it sounds like an oxymoron. And sadly, for the most part, it is. This is a country so conservative it doesn't allow its women to drive, let alone slip into their sneakers and freely jog.

''The Saudi government systematically discriminates against women in sports,'' says Human Rights Watch. Just one of many examples the rights group cited in a 52-page report in February: Boys in Saudi state schools get physical education classes, girls do not.


Clearly, having a Saudi woman or two competing in London won't change this overnight. Marching behind their flag during the July 27 Olympic opening ceremony would be an adventure for the women themselves but, alone, it won't bring down Saudi Arabia's barriers against female sports.

Indeed, some argue a token female presence could even hurt the overall cause of Saudi women, by allowing the government to pretend it is committed to radically improving their lot.

Human Rights Watch wants the IOC and sports federations to push for more meaningful change, suggesting they should threaten to exclude Saudi teams from international competition, including the London Olympics, if Saudi authorities don't start dismantling obstacles to women exercising, competing in and enjoying sports.

Getting a few Saudi women into the Olympics ''will not have a gigantic ripple effect inside the country where suddenly thousands of women go out and buy their Reeboks and join the gyms and want to be professional sportswomen,'' Christoph Wilcke, author of the Human Rights Watch report, said in a telephone interview.

''That's not going to happen because the government prevents it from happening,'' he said.

The presence of Saudi female athletes in London would be ''a welcome fig leaf'' but ''it's no substitute for the IOC getting tough with Saudi Arabia and saying, 'Actually, you have to start putting in place some baby steps to start a women's sports program,''' Wilcke added.

Two other countries, Qatar and Brunei, also are expected to send women for the first time. So the London Olympics could make history as the first where all participating nations field women - an astounding delay of 112 years after British tennis player Charlotte Cooper became the first female Olympic champion.

Brunei's pioneer is likely to be 400-meter runner Maziah Mahusin, who competed at the indoor world championships in Istanbul in March and the 2010 Youth Olympics. Qatar has said it, too, plans to send at least a woman swimmer and a sprinter.

So Saudi Arabia could be the last country without a female Olympian if it doesn't follow suit. Ostensibly, Saudi authorities and the IOC appear eager to avoid that outcome, which would be embarrassing and go against the Olympic Charter. It decrees that all humans ''must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind.''

The Saudi-owned Al-Hayat newspaper reported this month that Crown Prince Nayef himself, heir to Saudi Arabia's aging king and staunchly opposed to letting women drive in the kingdom, signed off on sending female athletes to London in sports that ''meet the standards of women's decency and don't contradict Islamic laws.''

Still, is that a guarantee it will really happen? Speaking before the Al-Hayat report, Middle East expert Christopher Davidson said resistance from religious conservatives within Saudi Arabia could ultimately prevent women from going.

Often, in their relations with Gulf states, international bodies like the IOC ''are dealing with officials or sections of government which are relatively progressive and relatively switched on and know the right things to say to avoid having the international media on their backs and bringing negative attention to the country. That doesn't mean they can actually push things through,'' said Davidson, who works at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University in northeast England.

Any Saudi female contingent would be small, maybe no more than four athletes and three delegation officials. The athlete or athletes may also be women who live abroad, not in Saudi itself.

Still, the IOC is so keen to have them, it may bend a few rules and accept women who aren't good enough to qualify on merit alone.

''People are working very hard to make sure that this can happen,'' IOC member Anita DeFrantz said in a phone interview. ''I believe that we are going to do this. I believe that we will be successful and then it will continue.''

In theory, one option could be track and field because its governing body, the IAAF, allows a limited number of unqualified Olympic competitors. But Saudi Arabia has so few female athletes in those disciplines that it doesn't even have national records that were set by women, at least none the governing body is aware of, says IAAF communications manager Yannis Nikolaou.

Davidson cannot imagine Saudi women competing in track and field in London. ''If they can't drive a car, they are certainly not going to be displaying their bodies to billions of viewers on TV with the Saudi flag on their tunic. No way,'' he said.

And what if the Saudi women are awful? Would that set back their cause?

IOC member Beckie Scott hopes not.

''You never know what kind of catalyst for change this might be,'' Scott, a three-time Olympian for Canada, said. ''While it may appear to be a token gesture at face value, it might kick start something back in Saudi Arabia for women's sport that we could never have predicted.

''And I think we have to start with small steps no matter what, and it's still better than nothing.''


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at) or follow him at