The International Olympic Committee announced yesterday that Saudi Arabia, which long had a policy of not allowing Saudi women to compete in the Olympics, will send two women to the 2012 games in London.
Runner Sarah Attar will compete for the Saudis in the 800 meters and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani will represent the kingdom in the judo competition.
Qatar and Brunei, the only other countries never to have sent a female athlete to the Olympics, will also be sending women to London, making this the first games in which all participating nations will be sending both male and female athletes.
It’s progress for sure.
- The first modern Olympics in 1896 didn’t allow women to compete.
- In 1904 there were 6 women athletes and 645 men.
- The first post-war Olympics in 1948 featured nearly ten times as many men as women.
- As recently as 1988 the ratio of men to women was almost three-to-one.
Recent years have seen a major shift toward equal representation. This summer, for the first time ever, the United States will send more women (269) than men (261) to the Olympics.
But don’t get too excited that Saudi Arabia is finally allowing women to compete.
The Saudis have put little or no effort into identifying and inviting the women who will be representing them and have done even less to develop and support them.
While the Saudi Arabia Olympic Committee deserves a little bit of credit for being willing to fill out some paperwork on Attar and Shahrkhani’s behalf, the Saudis appear to be doing the bare minimum required to avoid sanctions from the IOC.
The IOC invited both Attar and Shahrkhani and did so only after Saudi Arabia’s previous token woman athlete, equestrian Dalma Rushdi Malhas (also recruited by the IOC), failed to meet minimum eligibility standards. To the Saudi’s credit Shahrkhani (about whom little is known) actually trained in the kingdom.
Attar, by contrast, was born and raised in California and currently runs track at Pepperdine University. She enjoys Death Cab for Cutie and Phineas and Ferb. Attar’s father is from Saudi Arabia; her mother is American. She holds dual citizenship.
Both Attar and Shahrkhani are competing under the “universality clause” that allows certain athletes who haven’t met qualifying standards to compete in the interest of equal representation.
Attar and Shahrkhani’s presence in London is more symbolic than substantial. The IOC gets to celebrate the full inclusion of women and the Saudis get to tell the rest of the world to shut up about the no-women-in-the-Olympics thing.
But as long as women and girls in Saudi Arabia don’t have opportunities to compete in sports or facilities in which to train, inviting token Saudi women to the Olympics every four years only distracts from a larger problem.
If Saudi Arabia continues to ban girls sports in state schools, then the kingdom sending two women to London isn’t the big deal that the IOC wants us to think it is.
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Brunei is sending one woman, Maziah Mahusin, in the 400 meter hurdles. Qatar (which has to clean up its act before the 2022 FIFA World Cup) is sending four women. Shooter Bahiya Al-Hamad will carry the Qatari flag at the Opening Ceremony.