Olympic first as Saudi Arabia names two women in London 2012 team

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Story highlights

  • Saudi Arabia includes two female athletes in its team for the London Olympics
  • One judo competitor and a middle-distance runner will take part in London
  • International Olympic Committee has been striving for gender equality at the Olympics
  • U.S. Olympic team will have more women than men for the first time

Every country competing at the London 2012 Olympics will have at least one female athlete after Saudi Arabia included two women in its team for the first time.

Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, a judo competitor, and 800 meters runner Sarah Attar will compete in London after the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee named the duo in their team inside the official deadline of July 9.

They had been invited to take part by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

"This is very positive news and we will be delighted to welcome these two athletes in London in a few weeks' time," IOC president Jacques Rogge said in a statement on Thursday.

"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."

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The strict Muslim nation had been the last bastion of male-only teams after Qatar and Brunei -- the two other nations that failed to send a woman to the Beijing Olympics four years ago -- announced they would accede to the IOC's desire to end sexual discrimination among its member nations.

    "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," Rogge said.

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    "With Saudi Arabian female athletes now joining their fellow female competitors from Qatar and Brunei Darussalam, it means that by London 2012 every National Olympic Committee will have sent women to the Olympic Games."

    Shooter Bahiya Al-Hamad is one of four Qatari women going to London, and will carry her country's flag.

    "I'm overwhelmed to have been asked to carry the Qatari flag at the opening ceremony," she said on the IOC website. "It's a truly historic moment for all athletes."

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    The London Games officially open on July 27 and run until August 12, with athletes from 204 nations expected to take part.

    Saudi runner Attar has been training in the United States.

    "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 said at her San Diego base.

    "It's such a huge honor and I hope that it can really make some big strides for women over there to get more involved in sport."

    Saudi Arabia's decision is a rare concession for a kingdom where women are banned from driving. They cannot vote or hold public office, though that will change in 2015.

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    Women in Saudi Arabia also cannot marry, leave the country, go to school or open bank accounts without permission from a male guardian, who usually is the father or husband. Much of public life is segregated by gender.

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    When it came to sports, female athletes were barred from the Olympic Games because they would be participating in front of a mixed-gender crowd.

    Human Rights Watch, which has criticized the Saudi government's restrictions on women, hailed the decision as "an important precedent" but warned that it needed to be backed up by allowing more females to participate in sport.

    "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," said its senior Middle East researcher Christoph Wilcke.

    "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 to girls schools, women's sports clubs and competitive tournaments."

    The IOC said female participation at the first London Games in 1908 was 1.8% of all competitors, increasing to 9.5% when the UK capital was next host in 1948. At Beijing four years ago, the ratio was more than 42% -- and the IOC expects that to increase again.

    The United States will field more women than men for the first time in its history, with 269 of the 530 athletes taking part being female.

    "It is a true testament to the impact of 'Title IX,' which in its 40-year history has increased sport opportunities for millions of females across the United States," said U.S. Olympic chief Scott Blackmun, referring to the legislation that bans sexual discrimination.

    Seven of the U.S. team will be taking part in their fifth Olympics. Five of them are women: high jumper Amy Acuff, archer Khatuna Lorig, equestrian Karen O'Connor, shooter Kim Rhode and volleyball player Danielle Scott-Arruda.