THE ANNOUNCEMENT that Saudi Arabia will finally allow its women athletes to compete in the Olympics is an important step to ensure that the games’ charter, which prohibits discrimination based on gender, is actually followed. But, unfortunately, that is all that the change was meant to address. Because of the systemic deprivation of women’s rights in the kingdom, where women are banned from most team sports and facilities, the nation is still far from leveling its playing field.
Indeed, it is already clear that no Saudi women will qualify for the 2012 London Olympics. Dalma Rushdi Malhas, the equestrian show jumper, did not pass muster after her horse was injured. Since there is no line behind her, the Saudi change of policy is of no practical importance.
Ironically, Rushdi Malhas was born in Ohio and has spent most of her competitive years in Europe. She did not suffer the massive restrictions placed on Saudi women. No one — not even the Saudi Arabian government, which admitted it had no other women to promote — can doubt that had Rushdi Malhas been raised in Saudi Arabia she would not be a world-class athlete.
Still, Saudi Arabia clearly felt the increased international pressure to allow its women to compete, and the potential threat that the entire nation could be banned from the games. So its decision carries symbolic weight; Saudi Arabia was the last country in the world to prevent women from becoming Olympic athletes.
But if the International Olympic Committee wants to make its anti-discrimination rules really matter, it should take a closer look at the progress other nations are making in promoting competitive sports. The Saudi kingdom may be a long way from adopting its own version of Title IX, the historic piece of legislation that brought gender sports equity to the United States in 1972, but it should do more than make a token gesture.