Int’l Olympic Committee Talking to Saudis About Ban on Female Athletes, But No Ultimatum

By Patrick Goodenough | July 12, 2011 | 5:01 AM EDT

The logo of the Saudi Arabian national Olympic committee. (Image: Saudi NOC)

( – The International Olympic Committee is not supporting calls for a ban on the three Islamic countries that have never included women in their national teams, but it is talking with them and hopes to see progress as the London 2012 games draw nearer.

In response to queries about the IOC’s stance on the matter, media relations manager Sandrine Tonge said Tuesday the governing body “does not give ultimatums nor deadlines but rather believes that a lot can be achieved through dialogue.”

At an IOC meeting in Durban, South Africa on Friday, Anita DeFrantz, a committee member from the U.S., named Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei as the only three out of 205 “national Olympic committees” (NOCs) never to have included female athletes in their teams. She expressed hope they would send women to London next year.

The IOC charter explicitly forbids “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, sex or otherwise.”

As part of a broader focus on restrictions faced by Saudi women – from driving to voting – the Washington-based Institute of Gulf Affairs (IGA) is campaigning for countries that bar women athletes to be banned from the Olympics and other international sporting events.

The IOC’s Tonge pointed to headway made in expanding female Olympic participation, noting that 42 percent of the participants at Beijing in 2008 were women, compared to 23 percent at the Los Angeles games in 1984.

As a result of dialogue with the Saudi, Qatari and Brunei NOCs, she said, the three had included women in their delegations at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore.

“We are very pleased with this evolution which can only been seen as a promising development leading towards London 2012,” Tonge said.

She attributed the progress to efforts by the IOC to ensure the games are “universal and non-discriminatory,” adding that NOCs “are encouraged to uphold that spirit in their delegations.”

Still, the dialogue approach taken with the holdout Islamic states today differs from the IOC’s line of attack when faced with other forms of discrimination in the past.

From the 1960s until the Barcelona games in 1992, white minority-ruled South Africa was barred from participation. Unlike Saudi Arabia’s ban on women, South Africa was in fact prepared to include black athletes in its delegation – seven blacks would have been included in its 62-member team for Tokyo 1964, for instance – but the IOC cracked down because of racial segregation in sports events at home.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar both have representatives on the 110-member IOC. Both are members of their respective countries’ ruling royal families.

IGA director Ali al-Ahmed wondered Tuesday why it had taken the IOC so long to call publicly for Saudi Arabia to include women in its national teams.

“This issue should have been addressed 20 years ago but because of cultural supremacy of the [IOC] they have ignored it,” he said. “They never gave the Saudi monarchy any ultimatum or warning.”

International Olympic Committee member Anita DeFrantz of the United States. (Photo: IOC)

Al-Ahmed said his own approaches to the IOC had brought little satisfaction. In a conversation with DeFrantz last year, he said, the American IOC member had “disagreed with me on comparing Saudi gender apartheid with South Africa’s racial apartheid” although she told him she had asked the committee to do something about the issue.

DeFrantz, who won a bronze medal for the U.S. in rowing at the 1976 games, became a member of the committee in 1986 and in 1997 was the first woman to be elected an IOC vice president.

Following her comments in Durban last week, the IGA on Monday re-released a report it first brought out ahead of the Beijing games last year, which it said was the source for her information about Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei.

Al-Ahmed said he hoped the IOC would now insist that the three governments lift the bans on women, “rather than releasing these statements to water down this important issue.”

A number of Islamic countries have in recent decades started to include very small numbers of women in their Olympic teams – Iran and Pakistan since Atlanta 1996, Bahrain since Sydney 2000, Afghanistan and Kuwait since Athens 2004 and the United Arab Emirates and Oman since 2008.

At the other end of the scale among Muslim states, more than one-third of the athletes Indonesia has sent to 13 summer games have been women.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow