Saudi women vie for Olympic rights
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Eight years after the Sydney Olympics Hadi Souan Somayli still finds it hard to talk about the 400 metres hurdles final.
He led for 399 metres but at the finishing line US sprinter Angelo Taylor surged forward to take gold.
When I suggest we watch the race together his face darkens. It is not until he shows me his Olympic medal that his mood lightens.
“This is special not just for me”, he says. “It’s special also for my country because this is the first medal that we won in the Olympics.”
Somayli is going to Beijing as director of the Saudi sprint team and, like every Saudi Olympic official and athlete, he is a man.
Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries that does not allow women to take part in the Olympics, or any other major sporting event.
“Some events are difficult for us, with the clothes,” says Somayli. “Events like track and field, swimming, even football.”
“I hope in the other events we will see Saudi women compete and soon.”
Sport is banned at girls state schools. There is no federation that organises women’s sport and few stadia that are open to them. However, there are pioneers.
“We we are not official or approved of,” says Danaya al-Maeena co-founder of Jeddah United basketball team.
“It is a challenge and it is the beginning of something that we really believe in.”
Jeddah United hope to promote basketball among young Saudis who may one day be able to compete internationally. For now they provide an opportunity for people to have a few hours of sport every week.”A lot of the women were depressed and this just lifts them up. It gives them a sense of meaning and belonging,” said Danaya al-Maeena.
The women of Jeddah United exemplify how reform is slowly coming – led young people who want the country to modernise in a way consistent with the teachings of Islam.
“All of the Arab and Muslim countries around the world have women competing and a few years ago we had the Bahraini 100m runner who ran in her veil.
“These people should realise we can compete within our religious and cultural framework.”
The most senior Saudi clerics do not seem to agree. In March the Grand Mufti ordered a Riyadh university to cancel a women’s marathon. Religious leaders banned a football match last year.
But things are changing. This year Arwa Mutabagani was the first Saudi woman to be appointed as a top sports administrator, at the Equestrian Federation.
At a centre Ms Mutabagani set-up in Jeddah, Abdullah al-Shurbatly canters around the arena watched by a few young women.
The dashing young equestrian will compete this summer in Beijing on his English horse, Hugo, and is one of the big Saudi medal hopes.
Behind these high walls other young women are also learning to ride.
“Only 50 girls are riding and they are not that good, because here in the national shows they are not allowed to ride,” he said.
“When they compete in Europe and start to do competitions and train hard they are going to get better.”
No-one from the Saudi Olympic Committee was available for interview, but the International Olympic Committee is thought to be putting increasing pressure on them to include women in the future.
London 2012 may therefore see Saudi women Olympians for the first time. If not, it is conceivable the Kingdom may not be allowed to enter an all-male team.