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LONDON (AP) — Saudi Arabia has moved to send female athletes to the Olympics for the first time at the London Games.
The ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom is one of three countries which have never included women in their Olympic teams, along with Qatar and Brunei. The International Olympic Committee says talks have been ongoing with Saudi Arabia to ensure participation.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is looking forward to its complete participation in the London 2012 Olympic Games through the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee, which will oversee the participation of women athletes who can qualify for the games,” the Saudi Embassy in London said in a statement.
An official in Saudi Arabia, who spoke on condition of anonymity on Monday, says an announcement by King Abdullah about Saudi women’s participation in the Olympics was expected some days ago, but was postponed after the death of Crown Prince Nayef. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Female athletes in judo and in track and field are considered possibilities, sports officials familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press while speaking on condition of anonymity.
The discussions on sending women to the games have been wrapped in secrecy for fear of a backlash from the powerful religious establishment and deeply traditional society in which women are severely restricted in public life and are not even allowed to drive. There are no written laws that restrict women from participating in sport in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest shrines, though the omission of female athletes from the team has been rooted in conservative tribal traditions and religious views.
Because the women may not meet the international qualifying standards, the IOC may grant them Olympic entry based on “special circumstances,” an IOC official told The AP in March.
The IOC wants more than one woman on the Saudi team, and hopes for at least two or three, the official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
IOC President Jacques Rogge has said he is “optimistic” that Saudi Arabia would send women athletes to London, but even a month ago he described a deal that was far from complete. Describing talks with Saudi Arabia as “not an easy situation,” Rogge said that discussions were still under way with the Saudi Olympic authorities and with athletes themselves.
Qatar and Brunei are expected to include women, according to the IOC. If some arrangement can be made for the Saudis, all national Olympic committees in London would include women athletes for the first time in Olympic history.
About 204 national Olympic committees are expected to compete in London, representing 10,500 athletes. -- AP