Sport & Culture

Saudis and Female Olympians

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Sport & Culture

Saudis and Female Olympians

Saudi Arabia won’t be taking a female team to the summer Olympics. Should the IOC stop it competing?

The controversy ahead of the summer Olympics in London is starting early as criticism grows over Saudi Arabia’s decision not to take a female team to the games.

There's little physical activity for girls and women in the country, which has never sent a female athlete to the games. Qatar and Brunei are two others that usually follow suit, although Qatar is planning to change that policy for the games in London (and in 2008, Brunei didn't send a team at all).

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) does have rules against this sort of thing, and banned South Africa from the tournament in the past due to apartheid. In 2000, Afghanistan wasn't allowed to compete in Sydney due to the Taliban’s policies on women.

Barbara Keeley, a Labour MP in the U.K., wants an end to the practice. "It's time to call a halt to discrimination against women in Olympic events. It seems totally unacceptable for any country competing in the Olympics to be allowed to have a team that is entirely male."

A report by Human Rights Watch detailed how women have few opportunities to take part in sports. The theory in the Muslim country goes, according to the report, that the more women play sport, the more they wear fewer clothes, the more time they spend out of the house and the more they spend time with men. Being banned from driving also made things difficult.

The organization wants the IOC to take a tougher line, but that doesn’t seem likely to happen.

A spokesperson for the IOC said that encouragement and not ultimatums were the preferred way forward: "The IOC strives to ensure the Olympic Games and the Olympic movement are universal and non-discriminatory…The IOC does not give ultimatums or deadlines, but believes a lot can be achieved through dialogue."

The body pointed to the progress already made.

"We have been in regular contact with the three national Olympic committees that have yet to send women to the Olympics, ie Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia. As a result of fruitful discussions, the three NOCs included women in their delegations competing at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore last summer. Dalma Rushdi Malas was one of them. She was the first female Saudi athlete to compete in an Olympic competition and claimed a bronze medal in the equestrian jumping event."

If there is progress being made then many want to see more evidence and relatively soon. Tessa Jowell, former culture minister in the U.K. and now a member of the Olympic board, wants to see a full Saudi team for the next tournament.

"The London Games would be the perfect opportunity for the Saudis to spell out a way forward," she said. "I would like to see them set out a clear plan for equal inclusion of women in time for the 2016 games in Rio de Janiero. This has to be a substantive commitment."