In 2009, the government of Saudi Arabia closed gyms for women. Physical education for girls in Saudi state-run schools is not offered. Strict laws dictating female dress code and behavior make it nearly impossible for women to partake in physical activity.
But with new reports that Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz will allow the participation of female athletes in the London Olympics, there is hope that restrictions on Saudi women in sports may be loosening.
The Saudi-owned, pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat says Nayef, who is heir to the king, has approved the participation of women in any Olympic sports that "meet the standards of women's decency and don't contradict Islamic laws."
If so, this year’s Olympics looks to be a landmark event as every participating nation would be sending at least one female athlete. Saudi Arabia, along with Qatar and Brunei, has never fielded a female competitor before. While women from Qatar and Brunei have competed in other national and international events, Saudi Arabia has been so prohibitive as to essentially bar women from athletics altogether.
Given the nation’s size, oil influence and widespread criticism for its general treatment of women — who must receive permission from male guardians to work, go to school, have a bank account, get married, and travel — this is a significant move.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said in a statement that it met with Saudi Olympic officials last week and that it was “confident that Saudi Arabia is working to include women athletes and officials at the Olympic Games in London.”
So might an abaya-clad athlete be taking home the gold? Presumably the world will be enthusiastically cheering for any female Saudi competitors. But given their lack of international experience, they will most likely find it difficult or impossible to even meet Olympic qualifying standards, according to the New York Times.
Fortunately, the IOC has long made accommodations for athletes from developing nations under special conditions. And it is under significant pressure to grant participation for Saudi women in London.
Regardless of their performance, the women's presence alone will be a victory for many.
A list of several potential athletes was presented by Saudi officials to the IOC and will be reviewed by relevant international sports federations, which give consent to Olympic participants. A formal proposal for including female Saudi athletes at the London Games will be made to the IOC’s executive board in Quebec City in late May.
Also on MNN: A look at London's Olympic venues