AP – Every country competing at the London Games will include female athletes for the first time in Olympic history after Saudi Arabia agreed Thursday to send two women to compete in judo and track and field.
The move by the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom to break with its practice of fielding male-only teams followed earlier decisions by Qatar and Brunei to send women athletes to the Olympics for the first time.
“With Saudi Arabian female athletes now joining their fellow female competitors from Qatar and Brunei, it means that by London 2012 every national Olympic committee will have sent women to the Olympic Games,” IOC President Jacques Rogge said.
Saudi Arabia had been under intense pressure from the International Olympic Committee and human-rights groups to include female athletes. Thursday’s announcement followed months of IOC negotiations with the Saudis to bring women to London.
The two female Saudi athletes selected to compete are Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani in judo and 800-meter runner Sarah Attar.
“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 statement 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.”
The two athletes, who were invited by the IOC, were entered by the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee by the July 9 deadline.
“This is very positive news and we will be delighted to welcome these two athletes in London in a few weeks time,” Rogge said in a statement.
The Gulf kingdom will also include female officials in their Olympic delegation for the first time.
About 10,500 athletes are expected to compete in London, representing more than 200 national Olympic committees.
“The IOC has been working very closely with the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee and I am pleased to see that our continued dialogue has come to fruition,” Rogge said. “The IOC has been striving to ensure a greater gender balance at the Olympic Games, and today’s news can be seen as an encouraging evolution.”
Rights groups hailed the decision as a step forward for Saudi women in their quest for basic rights in a country that severely restricts them in public life.
“It’s an important precedent that will create space for women to get rights and it will be hard for Saudi hard-liners to roll back,” said Minky Worden of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The IOC said Brunei has entered one woman in track and field, Maziah Mahusin, while Qatar has entered four female athletes – swimmer Nada Arkaji, track athlete Noor Al-Malki, table tennis player Aya Magdy and shooter Bahiya Al-Hamad.
Qatar announced on Wednesday that al-Hamad will be the country’s flag-bearer at the opening ceremony in London on July 27.
“I’m overwhelmed to have been asked to carry the Qatari flag at the Opening Ceremony,” she said. “It’s a truly historic moment for all athletes.”
The goal of gender equity is enshrined in the IOC’s charter, but has proved difficult to achieve.
At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, 26 national teams had no women. The figure dropped to three in Beijing four years ago.
In Beijing, women represented 42 percent of the athletes, and the figure is expected to increase in London. Women’s boxing is included on the Olympic program in London for the first time.