Why You Won’t See Saudi Women at the Olympics

Is there a nation in the world that would single out a male minority for similar treatment and not face diplomatic complaints or sanctions?

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Omar Salem / AFP / Getty Images

Saudi members of the King's United women football club train at a stadium in the Red sea port of Jeddah on May 20, 2009.

Fans of the Olympics have seen unusual athletes engaging in some odd sports over the years. In 1912, there was the Glima competition — a form of Icelandic wrestling in which competitors wore leather straps around their waists and thighs which opponents grabbed to score takedowns. Other Olympians have engaged in fishing, ballooning, “skijoring” (races with animals pulling humans on skis) and bandy — a hybrid of ice hockey and soccer.

But spectators watching London’s 2012 Olympics this summer will not see that extremely rare creature: the Saudi woman athlete. In fact, they are more likely to see camels racing in Piccadilly Circus than a single Saudi women kicking a ball around a London soccer field.

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It’s not because Saudi women athletes don’t exist. They do, but they are few and far between, and face enormous social and legal pressure to sit down and stop moving.

Women in the Kingdom are legally prohibited from breaking a sweat over anything more strenuous than wearing the burka in 120 degree desert heat. To exercise publicly is to risk being smacked with the sticks of the religious police, or worse. Girls don’t expect to learn to swim, ride a bike or, god forbid, do gymnastics.

For a while in the 1990s, Saudi women had gyms where they could exercise, but in 2009 the government decided that Stairmasters and their ilk were gateways to female licentiousness and shuttered 153 women’s gyms.

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A few weeks ago, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report on the Saudi prohibition on women and sports. The report noted that some forward-thinking Saudi men, specifically Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, sponsored Saudi Arabia’s first women’s soccer team, the Jeddah Kings, in 2009. “But he abandoned the effort when media coverage of a women’s soccer tournament that year involving the Jeddah Kings and five other private teams caused a public backlash, with a hostile reaction to the players by some conservative Saudis,” according to the report.

The ban on gyms came at a time when rates of obesity and diabetes have risen significantly in Saudi Arabia, especially among women and girls, according to HRW. Between two-thirds to three-quarters of adults and 25% to 40% of children and adolescents are estimated to be overweight or obese. A disproportionate number of women also suffer from osteoporosis, also associated with inactivity and lack of Vitamin D (you don’t get much sunlight on your skin under under a black blanket or indoors).

The Saudis are refusing to send women to the Olympics (as are their brothers in Qatar and Brunei) despite public pressure from the International Olympic Committee which stated: “The IOC strives to ensure the Olympic Games and the Olympic movement are universal and non-discriminatory, in line with the Olympic Charter and our values of respect, friendship and excellence. National Olympic committees are encouraged to uphold that spirit in their delegations. The IOC does not give ultimatums or deadlines, but believes a lot can be achieved through dialogue.”

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Recently British Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell publicly chided the decision: “The London Games would be the perfect opportunity for the Saudis to spell out a way forward. I would like to see them set out a clear plan for equal inclusion of women in time for the 2016 games in Rio de Janiero.” So we won’t be cheering on the Jeddah Kings in London 2012.

Imagine, for a moment, a world where your daughter was not just discouraged from playing soccer or swimming or doing gymnastics but prohibited from running in public. Is there a nation in the world that would single out a male minority for similar treatment, and not face diplomatic complaints or sanctions? Is Jowel’s gentle nudge about Rio 2016 and the IOC’s hope for “dialogue” really the best the world can do to address a set of human rights violations against women of which forced immobility is but one?

Americans have long witnessed the medieval treatment of women by our ally in the region without much comment. But it’s more of a problem now than ever, as Saudi money, influence and support for regressive politicians flows into unstable, post-revolutionary countries like Egypt and Tunisia, where women’s rights hang in the balance.

Stronger statements on this by the IOC, and from the leaders meeting at the 56th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York this week, and from Americans like the Secretary of State, would be small, welcome steps in the right direction.

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