Qatar grasps Olympic opportunity at last while Saudi Arabia stays silent
Three female athletes representing Qatar at the London 2012 Olympic Games will make history this summer.
One of only three countries that had never sent a female athlete to an Olympic Games for cultural or religious reasons (Brunei and Saudi Arabia being the other two), Qatar has finally given into pressure.
Even Brunei managed to select one woman athlete this year, a 400m hurdler by the name of Maziah Mahusin, but for some reason the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has allowed Saudi Arabia to maintain its stance, and refuses even to say whether it will impose penalties on it.
The Qatari Olympic team has finally understood the importance of including (and promoting) women, particularly 17-year-old Noor al-Malki, who will be competing in the highest profile event, the 100 metres.
Her fastest recorded time is over a second outside the qualifying standard, but a special dispensation from the IOC means that she will be allowed to run.
Her competition, in all probability, will last approximately 13 seconds but symbolically could not be more important.
“I could not believe it when they told me I was going to the Olympics” says Malki.
“It was a shock, but it was also a source of immense happiness and pride…..I am going for a specific reason, which is to represent Qatari women, and to encourage more women to get into sport.”
She knows she is lucky to have the support of her family.
“My parents always told me sports are an area where you can develop a goal and work towards and achieve that goal, so they encouraged me to take that opportunity.”
In addition to al-Malki, Qatar also includes a swimmer, Nada Arkaji, also 17 and a rifle shooter, Bahia al-Hamad, 19, in its team. Their inclusion means that London 2012 will be the first Olympic Games where the representation of female to male is 50/50.
It is surely no coincidence that Qatar was bidding to host the 2020 Olympic Games, but its intentions appear genuine.
Its bid document includes a wish to “enhance and grow women’s sport across the Arab world” and build “bridges of hope and understanding between the Middle East and the international community.”
Noora al-Mannai, chief executive of the Qatari bid, is vocal in her condemnation of Saudi Arabia, but positive about the speed and depth of change and development in her own country.
“If Qatar does it, it will be easier for others. It is always the case with change – people find it difficult at first but they will start seeing changes in our country and then countries that have similar religions, similar traditions, will change as well.”
It is a change that permeates through Qatari society.
“When I started working ten years ago it was very difficult for girls to work in an open environment and meet with men,” says Mannai.
“Today we have an open environment, women are working with men, so exercising together is not an issue.
“Ten years ago her highness Sheikha Mouzah [the second of the emir’s three wives] played a very big role in initiating the change. Now we are not at the beginning, we have already passed a lot of challenges.”
Qatar is gaining respect in both the sporting and the political world with its emphatic change of heart.
Mannai issues a warning to those unwilling to do likewise:
“Others will close their ears – they don’t want to listen, don’t want to see. But one day they will hear, one day they will see…
“We will open the door for women’s sports in Qatar and across the whole region. Driving this change is the biggest legacy. We want to do that for a whole region.”
Saudi Arabia would do well to take note.