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SPORTCHECK: Taboo over

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SAUDI Arabia's decision to allow two women athletes to compete at the Olympic Games overturns a decades-old taboo imposed by the conservative Muslim monarchy which still bars women from sports at home.

Thursday's announcement by the International Olympic Committee was the fruit of negotiations between the Lausanne-based organisation and the kingdom's sports chief and has been hailed as a "breakthrough."

It capped weeks of suspense and won praise for Saudi Arabia from IOC President Jacques Rogge.

The women who will make history for Saudi Arabia are Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani (judo) and Sarah Attar (800m).

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

"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."

Saudi sports authorities have refrained from promoting the participation of women athletes in the London Games, apparently to avoid run-ins with ultra-conservative forces opposed to such an initiative.

In early July the Saudi Olympic committee chairman and sports minister, Prince Nawaf bin Faisal, set out the rules of the game.

All women competitors must dress modestly, be accompanied by a male guardian and not mix with men during the Games, he told Al-Jazirah newspaper.

Saudi sportswomen may only take part if they do so "wearing suitable clothing that complies with sharia" (Islamic law) and "the athlete's guardian agrees and attends with her," he said.

"There must also be no mixing with men during the Games."

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei have been the only three countries yet to send women athletes to the Olympics. And now all three will be represented from July 27 in London.

Qatari woman shooter Bahiya al-Hamad will carry Doha's flag at the opening ceremony.

The 19-year-old Qatari, who will compete in the 10 metres pistol event, was elated.

"I am shaking with joy to be carrying the national flag of my country, Qatar, at the opening ceremony," said Bahiya. "It is a historic moment for sport."

And Sarah, 17, speaking from her training base in the US city of San Diego, said: "It's such a huge honour and I hope that it can really make some big strides for women over there to get more involved in sport."

Unlike Saudi Arabia, Qatar encourages female sports and is determined to host the Olympics in 2024 even if its bid for 2020 failed. It is also preparing to host the 2022 World Cup.

The sporting world and activists for women's rights had held their breath for weeks as they awaited news from Saudi Arabia and the Olympics committee on the participation of the women athletes. AFP


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