June 25, 2012

THE OLYMPIC CHARTER declares that discrimination by gender is “incompatible with belonging” to the Olympic movement, and that “the practice of sport is a human right.” These noble principles have long been ignored in Saudi Arabia, which has never sent a female athlete to the adult games.

On Sunday, the Saudi Embassy in London issued a short statement announcing that qualifying female athletes could compete in the upcoming London games under the auspices of the Saudi Olympic Committee. But don’t expect a surge of Saudi women to arrive at Heathrow Airport dreaming of a medal. The equestrian Dalma Rushdi Malhas, who won an individual bronze in the 2010 Youth Olympic Games, was thought to be the one Saudi female with potential for London, but on Monday it was announced she could not participate because an injury to her horse cost her a month’s work during the qualification period.

The International Olympic Committee has criticized the Saudi record in the past, but without disqualifying the kingdom. In 1999, the IOC barred the Taliban, then in control of much of Afghanistan, from the 2000 Sydney games, at least in part for excluding women. Some questions were raised this year about whether Saudi Arabia should be similarly tossed. Saudi officials told the BBC that this prospect sparked six weeks of intense and secret discussions in the country led by King Abdullah, who has supported a gradual — very gradual — expansion of rights for women. If Saudi women do take part in the games, officials said they will wear a sports hijab, a scarf covering the hair but not the face.

The announcement will forestall disqualification, but it doesn’t solve the deeper problem. As Human Rights Watch pointed out in a February report, discrimination is entrenched against Saudi women in athletics, as in many fields. The Saudi National Olympic Committee does not have a women’s section, nor does any of the country’s 29 sporting federations. There is no government sports infrastructure for women. All designated buildings, sport clubs, courses, expert trainers and referees are limited to men’s sports. Girls in state schools do not have the physical education classes that boys do, although the government has promised to change that. Private gyms and fitness clubs set up by women were closed in recent years for lack of licenses, and then licenses were never issued.

Strict interpretations of Islamic law and deeply rooted traditions, including rigorous separation of men and women, have stifled the rights of women for a long time. It is hardly sufficient for Saudi Arabia to announce that women can participate, just weeks before the London games open, while it continues to deny them basic rights at home. The true spirit of the Olympic movement dictates that in athletics, and in all of society, the kingdom needs to do more.