Saudi Arabia‘s National Olympic Committee’s decision to send two women athletes to the London Olympic Games is a breakthrough for Saudi women’s sports, Human Rights Watch said on Friday.
However, the US-based group added that there were still "no signs of any advance" in ending an effective ban on women and girls practising sports in the kingdom.
“Allowing women to compete under the Saudi flag in the London Games will set an important precedent,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“But without policy changes to allow women and girls to play sports and compete within the kingdom, little can change for millions of women and girls deprived of sporting opportunities.”
The two athletes have been named as Wujdan Shahrkhani in judo, and Sarah Attar in track and field.
Saudi's confirmation that female competitors will take part follows a report in the Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper on Wednesday which said that “[no] female team [is] taking part in the three fields” for which male Saudi athletes have qualified: track, equestrian, and weightlifting.
Saudi Arabia would have been the only country not to send female athletes to the London Olympics. Qatar and Brunei – which, like Saudi Arabia, fielded only all-male teams at previous Olympics – have also confirmed that their teams in London will include women.
A Saudi woman who plays football in Riyadh told Human Rights Watch after the announcement that she was hopeful that Saudi women’s participation in the Olympic Games will open up sporting possibilities for women inside the kingdom.
“Women’s sports have a long way to go in Saudi Arabia,” Wilcke said.
“Female participation in the London Games will only have impact if it begins to level the playing field for women in the kingdom.
"Now is the time for the International Olympic Committee to use its leverage and lay down concrete plans for female sports in girls' schools, women’s sports clubs, and competitive tournaments.”For all the latest sports news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.