Women will represent the kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the first time in Olympic history when the 30th Olympiad begins in London later this month after the conservative Muslim monarchy agreed to add two women to its Olympic team earlier today. The decision followed similar moves by Qatar and Brunei, meaning that for the first time, every country participating in the Olympic Games will have at least one female on its team.
Saudi Arabia agreed last month to let women attempt to qualify for the Olympics, but after an injury to the horse of the country’s most serious contender — an equestrian rider — no female athletes qualified (some have said Saudi officials knew this when they agreed to let her compete). The International Olympic Committee, however, granted qualification status to two athletes — judoist Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani and 800-meter runner Sarah Attar — after months of negotiations with Saudi Arabian officials, Sports Illustrated reported.
Attar, who lives and trains in the United States, said the decision will help make “big strides” for female athletes in Saudi Arabia:
“A big inspiration for participating in the Olympic Games is being one of the first women for Saudi Arabia to be going,” the 17-year-old Attar said in an IOC video from her U.S. training base in San Diego. “It’s such a huge honor and I hope that it can really make some big strides for women over there to get more involved in sport.” […]
“To any woman who wants to participate, I say `go for it,’ and don’t let anybody hold you back,” Attar said in the video after running a lap on the track wearing pants and a headscarf.
Female athletes in Saudi Arabia still cannot enter sports stadiums or rent athletic venues, though the country is home to a vast network of underground women’s sports leagues. “The participation of two Saudi women in London is an important breakthrough, but will not hide the fact that millions of Saudi girls are effectively banned from sports in schools in Saudi Arabia,” Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch told Sports Illustrated.
In 1996, 26 countries sent teams to the Atlanta Olympics that did not include female members. Only three teams did so at the 2008 Beijing Games.