Saudi Arabia has agreed to send female athletes to the Olympics for the first time.
A judoka and an 800m runner will represent the kingdom in London later this month, the International Olympic Committee said on Thursday.
Runner Sarah Attar and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, who will compete in the +78kg category in judo, will be the first Saudi women to take part at a Games after talks between IOC and the country paid off.
“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 video from her US training base in San Diego. “It’s such a huge honour and I hope that it can really make some big strides for women over there to get more involved in sport.”
Attar, who has spent most of her life outside of Saudi Arabia, said she hopes her inclusion will encourage women in the conservative kingdom that does not even allow women to drive to participate in sports.
“To any woman who wants to participate, I say ‘go for it’, and don’t let anybody hold you back,” Attar said in the video after running a lap on the track wearing pants and covering her hair.
“We all have potential to get out there and get moving,” she said, speaking in an American accent.
“This is very positive news and we will be delighted to welcome these two athletes in London in a few weeks time,” said IOC President Jacques Rogge in a statement.
“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.”
In the past months human rights groups had been urging the IOC to ban Saudi Arabia from the Games if it did not agree to send women athletes.
“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,” said Rogge.
‘Truly historic moment’
The IOC said the two Saudi athletes, invited by the IOC, were entered by the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee by the official deadline of July 9.
The decision means that every single country competing in the July 27-August 12 Olympics will be represented by male and female athletes.
The ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom is one of three countries, alongside Brunei and Qatar, never to have sent female athletes but the latter two confirmed earlier this year that their delegations would include women.
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 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 per cent of the athletes, and the figure is expected to increase in London, where women’s boxing is included on the Olympic program for the first time.