The past six months, all eyes have been on Saudi Arabia on whether or not they will enter women in the Games as part of their National Olympic Committee.
And I’ve been trying to write this story every week since May, but the answer keeps changing.
In February, Human Rights Watch condemned Saudi Arabia publicly and called out the IOC in an extensive report called “Steps of the Devil: Denial of Women’s and Girls’ Rights to Sport in Saudi Arabia.”
In a press release:
“‘No women allowed,’ is the kingdom’s message to Saudi women and girls who want to play sports,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that women and girls cannot train to compete clearly violates the Olympic Charter’s pledge to equality and gives the Olympic movement itself a black eye.”
The International Olympic Committee demurred, stating they don’t issue “ultimatums,” even though they have done so before with a ban on South Africa entering the Games until the end of apartheid. In March, however, the possibility of Saudi Arabia bringing in female athletes looked promising. Then in April, they weren’t. In June, things looked good once more, with an actual woman in mind — show-jumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas!
Then last week, a female delegation from Saudi Arabia was “not guaranteed.”
BUT YESTERDAY WAS DIFFERENT. Because finally, Saudi Arabia announced it would send two female athletes to London.
So, the answer at this very moment is yes! Hooray! But there are two weeks until the opening ceremonies. The promise of Saudi women competing won’t be fulfilled until we see them on the field ourselves.
According to the IOC, this decision came after months of ongoing dialogue. Saudi Arabia is not the only country who is entering women in the Olympics for the first time.
Qatar was easily convinced as they plan to bid for the 2024 Olympics (having failed to get the 2020 Olympics) and Brunei was not even able to send a delegation in 2008, so added a woman to their delegation this time with their list of qualifying athletes. Despite the fact that she would not qualify under normal standards, the IOC included her because the Olympic Charter dictates that “National Olympic Committees have the possibility of entering unqualified athletes in athletics and swimming should they not have athletes qualified in these sports.”
While the IOC’s ambiguity on the subject was definitely frustrating, Saudi Arabia’s back-and-forth in the face of international criticism was even more egregious. However, I believe that Saudi Arabia’s wavering on this has shown two things: first, that the government is holding tight to their values of restricting women’s rights, but also — also! That those values can be challenged if they are put under an international microscope like the Olympic Games.
What does this mean for the fans? Well, I feel that any sports where these three delegations are entered in are going to imbued with political justice. They’ll be the underdogs in their sport, but rooting for them will be even sweeter thanks to the political ideals they represent, and no matter how they do, they will be highly respected for it. That also means that the national broadcasters will (hopefully) see this crazy amazing thing for what it is, and hold on to that news narrative throughout the Games — women’s track and field will be an especially exciting no-more-than-15 seconds.