opinion | Juliette Kayyem

Saudi Arabia’s un-Olympic spirit

heather hopp-bruce/the boston globe

Olympic spirit is in the air. With less than 100 days until the opening ceremonies in London, the international sporting event is a reminder that, despite everything, the world still knows how to throw a party. Even the most cynical of us become true believers in universal good watching the most fit men and women compete. About those women, though. There is still one major exception to the celebration of all athletes. Saudi Arabia now stands alone as the only country competing without female participation.

The kingdom is only sending little princes. Saudi Arabia may be backwards, but it is also very calculating. Under Olympic rules, it is now too late for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ban them from the games. Only public humiliation can change Saudi Arabia’s stance. This is not about religion or decorum. It is all about Saudi Arabia being slow and stubborn.

For the past few months, the Saudis have broadly hinted that they might reconsider their long-standing policy of excluding women athletes. Qatar and Brunei were the only other holdouts, but folded. Qatar didn’t have an existential change of heart. It simply wants to host the 2020 games.


But Saudi Arabia just confirmed that they will not be “endorsing any female Saudi participation.” Sports head Prince bin Faisal noted “there are hundreds, if not thousands, of women who practice sports, but in private.” (One top Saudi athlete, Dalma Rushdi Malhas, is an equestrian show-jumper who won a bronze medal at the Youth Olympics in Singapore. She will not be in the Saudi delegation to London.)

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The IOC’s charter bans any “form of discrimination” as being incompatible with the Olympic spirit. For years, neither South Africa nor Afghanistan were permitted to send teams, for obvious reasons. But the IOC has looked the other way when it comes to Saudi Arabia.

There is no valid reason for the IOC’s betrayal of its own mandate. Respect for Islam is an inadequate and insulting explanation. Nothing in Islam mandates the Saudi policy. Most Islamic nations address decorum issues by requiring certain uniforms or, at most, keeping women from certain medals such as the barely clothed (by any standards) beach volleyball competitions. The IOC isn’t enabling Islam; it is enabling Saudi discrimination.

The IOC may have been gulled by Saudi Arabia’s public flirtation with the notion of change; its savvy timing also prevented any outside calls for a boycott from gaining momentum. Now the IOC is stuck. It would require a full meeting of the IOC to boot Saudi Arabia out, and that will occur only after the London games have already begun.

It is unfortunate because sports, and in particular the Olympics, are exactly where the international community can show some backbone and put a little global pressure on the kingdom, without having to raise anything more threatening than a shot put. Isolation from the games would have tremendous impact in a country well aware that public opinion is growing exceptionally suspicious of Arab monarchs. It may have domestic rules against women’s rights, but to play in the games it should live up to universal, and IOC, standards.


Even now, Saudi Arabia ought to think about global perception. Allowing women to compete in the games would be an easy concession, much easier than ending their systemic deprivation of women’s rights, including a near-universal ban on female drivers.

The IOC could always choose to bypass Saudia Arabia’s decision and invite its female athletes to compete under the Olympic flag. But that has only been done when an athlete’s nation did not field a team. Stranded athletes from the deteriorating Yugoslavia, for example, competed in Barcelona in 1992 as Olympic athletes. But such a move would put Saudi women in a terrible bind, forced to choose whether to abandon their flag.

Meanwhile, Egypt and Tunisia will be sending teams that represent their new governments. The IOC is working directly with Syrian athletes to bring them to London at international expense and thereby avoid any dealings with President Bashar Assad’s regime. But Saudi Arabia will be the same, uniquely resistant to the Olympic spirit.

It may be the Summer Games, but there will be no spring when it comes to Saudi Arabia. All that can be done now is to name and shame the kingdom of princes.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem.