Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Will Saudi women make Olympics debut?

By Matthew Knight, CNN
March 26, 2012 -- Updated 1109 GMT (1909 HKT)
The International Olympic Committee says it is confident Saudi Arabia is "working to include women athletes and officials at the Olympic Games in London in accordance with the International Federations' rules." The International Olympic Committee says it is confident Saudi Arabia is "working to include women athletes and officials at the Olympic Games in London in accordance with the International Federations' rules."
London calling?
Female footballers
Hoop dreams
Veiled support
  • Saudi Arabia and IOC meeting to consider female participation at 2012 London Games
  • IOC report having a "very constructive" meeting with Saudi officials earlier this month
  • But female Saudi basketball captain says country's athletes are not near level required
  • Human Rights Watch describe move as "positive" but sporting opportunities must "truly increase"

(CNN) -- One of the great Olympic ideals is the importance of taking part, bringing together athletes of all backgrounds from all around the world.

But not everyone has had the chance to compete. Saudi Arabia is one of only three countries -- along with Qatar and Brunei -- which have never sent female athletes to an Olympic Games.

That may change in London this year after a groundbreaking meeting with Olympic and Saudi officials, but it raises a bigger question -- are the Arab kingdom's women actually ready to compete in top international sporting competitions?

The plan, at this stage, is to send Saudi women to the UK capital for the July 27-August 12 event. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) met with Saudi Arabian Olympic officials this week.

Olympic dreams elude Saudi women

"A list of potential female athletes for the Games was presented. This will now be studied by the IOC together with the relevant International Sports Federations in order to assess the level of each athlete," ran a statement on the IOC's website.

It's a significant development, says Rima Maktabi, host of CNN's Inside the Middle East, but the move might come a bit too late for Saudi Arabia's female athletes.

"When you talk to Saudi women, even those who are professionals, they tell you that they are not even qualified," Maktabi said.

"We're not even close," says Lina Al-Maeena, co-founder of Jeddah United Sports Company.

"At this point, we are trying to make it on a national level, integrate into public schools and then maybe compete on a regional level before we even think of the Olympics," Al-Maeena, who is also captain of the Saudi women's basketball team, told CNN.

Al-Maeena says that Qatar and Brunei's non-participation at the Beijing Olympics four years ago wasn't because they didn't allow women to compete, but rather their female athletes just weren't at the required Olympic standard.

"We will need a long time," she concedes.

I think international public pressure by the IOC and public media pressure helped get us where we are today
Christoph Wilcke, Human Rights Watch

Saudi Arabia is a conservative country which has historically failed to promote women's participation in sport, says Christoph Wilcke of Human Rights Watch.

"Government policy hasn't been effectively challenged -- there is a predominant conservative view in society that doesn't afford women equality in a number of issues, including sports," Wilcke, senior researcher in the organization's Middle East and North Africa Division, told CNN.

The IOC says an assessment of each athlete's capabilities will make up part of a formal proposal which will be submitted to the IOC Executive Board next meeting which takes place in Quebec in May.

"The IOC is confident that Saudi Arabia is working to include women athletes and officials at the Olympic Games in London in accordance with the International Federations' rules," the IOC said.

Wilcke believes the move is a "very positive" development.

"I think international public pressure by the IOC and public media pressure helped get us where we are today," he said. "The goal has to be trying to open up the possibilities, the access for women to sports in Saudi Arabia."

But he added a note of caution.

"The female participation in the Olympics is a symbolic leap forward, but in order for it not to remain symbolic it's really for the Saudi authorities to start acting," Wilcke said.

Women are battling with conservative views. Many people in Saudi Arabia think it's un-Islamic to be in sports
CNN's Rima Maktabi

"If sporting opportunities truly increase, I think it will have a broader impact on life for women."

Maktabi said recent Saudi government reforms, aimed at putting more women in the workforce, gave them encouragement for a greater role in society.

"There is high unemployment, it is 17% across Saudi Arabia -- 7% among men, and 28% among women," she said.

"But it is interesting that 55-57% of the university graduates are women. So Saudi women are ready. This decision is quite symbolic -- even if it's only on the sports level, it will reflect on all levels in Saudi Arabia, on the economy.

"Definitely it will get women more involved. However, women are battling with conservative views. Many people in Saudi Arabia think it's un-Islamic to work, un-Islamic to be in sports.

"Even some of these ladies I saw, among the sports team, they had to veil just to prove that they are conservative, very Islamic and traditional, but that they can play sports and compete internationally."

Part of complete coverage on
August 13, 2012 -- Updated 1353 GMT (2153 HKT)
The moment that Team GB's Mo Farah won the 10,000 meters was a wonderful collision of electricity.
August 13, 2012 -- Updated 1534 GMT (2334 HKT)
His blistering pace and larger-than-life antics made him the king of the track in London, and bolstered his claims to be a "living legend."
August 14, 2012 -- Updated 0944 GMT (1744 HKT)
Disappointment for Nigeria's Muizat Ajoke Odumosu, who came last in the 400m hurdles final, London 2012 Olympics.
The Olympics are generally won and lost long before the opening ceremony cauldron is touched by fire.
August 12, 2012 -- Updated 0738 GMT (1538 HKT)
Fans of the home side, Team GB, wave Union Jack flags during the Olympic Games
CNN's Richard Quest believes the London Games will be regarded as having brought the Olympics concept home.
August 11, 2012 -- Updated 1633 GMT (0033 HKT)
Strategist Alastair Campbell says he never imagined London 2012 would be quite the triumph it turned out to be.
August 14, 2012 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Award-winning director Danny Boyle celebrates the best of British music in London 2012's Olympic Closing Ceremony.
January 31, 2013 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
From Usain Bolt's record-setting achievements to an unexpected Ugandan gold, London 2012 has provided a wide array of highlights.
August 13, 2012 -- Updated 0305 GMT (1105 HKT)
CNN's Amanda Davies recaps the London 2012 Olympics from the opening ceremony on July 27 to the finale on day 16.
August 12, 2012 -- Updated 1702 GMT (0102 HKT)
Mo Farah and Usain Bolt celebrate their success at the London 2012 Olympic Games by copying each other's
It's been just over two weeks since the Queen parachuted into London's Olympic Stadium, her apricot dress flapping in the breeze.
August 15, 2012 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
When the world's top marathon runners bid to win Olympic gold, they would do well to draw inspiration from one of the greatest athletes in the history of track and field.
August 11, 2012 -- Updated 1633 GMT (0033 HKT)
Team GB supporters with their faces painted in Union Jack designs at the Olympic Stadium in London.
Alastair Campbell always thought London 2012 would be a success, but never imagined it would be quite the triumph it has turned out to be.
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 1021 GMT (1821 HKT)
Adrien Niyonshuti is unlikely to win an Olympic medal, and he will do well to even finish his event, but his story is surely one of the most inspirational.
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 1605 GMT (0005 HKT)
The colors of the Olympic Rings at the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London, August 2012.
Olympic fever has cheered up London and made it a more welcoming place, but will optimism be one of the legacies of the Games?
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Wojdan Shaherkani's Olympic debut was short, but sweet -- the Saudi judoka said competing at the Games was
London 2012 is the first Olympics to feature women in every national team, with Jacques Rogge hailing a "major boost for gender equality."
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
An impoverished South Korean gymnast has not only struck Olympic gold, but also reaped a $444,000 donation in a veritable rags to riches tale.
August 9, 2012 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
Britain's hero Jessica Ennis is set to cash in after winning heptathlon gold, but the poster girl of the 2012 Olympics says fame is not her motivation.
August 8, 2012 -- Updated 0746 GMT (1546 HKT)
China is rallying around fallen hurdler Liu Xiang after he failed to make it past the first-round heat for a second consecutive Olympics.
August 3, 2012 -- Updated 1930 GMT (0330 HKT)
The first woman to win Olympic gold almost died in a plane crash, but remarkably returned to run again for the U.S. in 1936.
August 7, 2012 -- Updated 1504 GMT (2304 HKT)
Don Paige could not bear to watch the race he knew he could win. The 1980 Moscow Olympics were the death of a dream for many athletes.
August 4, 2012 -- Updated 1421 GMT (2221 HKT)
Ricardo Blas Jr
While Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt grab the headlines, little-known athletes from around the world keep alive the original spirit of the Olympics.
Athletes spend years eating the right foods ... and then must resist the free fast food in the Olympic village. How do they do it?