London May Host The First Olympics With Female Athletes From Every Country

It's hard to believe this is the year 2012 and there are still countries on the planet that have forbidden women from competing in the Olympics. You know, like that's something that still happens. But it's unfortunately true, as Saudi Arabia, Brunei, and Qatar—which would really like to get the 2020 Olympics when it's awarded next year—have never, ever allowed a woman in the Olympics.

All that appears to be changing, though, as word trickles in that the trio of holdouts appear ready to break under increased international pressure:

Human Rights Watch, which has accused the I.O.C. of violating its own charter for equality by allowing Saudi Arabia into the Games while discriminating against women, said it could not confirm the Arab newspaper report. But an official with the rights organization said he believed that at least one Saudi female athlete would compete in London, which he called a modest first step.

"While tokenistic participation is welcome, it wouldn't change our position that the I.O.C. should affect more systemic change," said Christoph Wilcke of Germany, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch's Middle Eastern and North African division.

Wilcke was the lead author of a blistering 51-page report issued last month by Human Rights Watch that detailed the struggles facing female athletes in Saudi Arabia. According to the report, Saudi officials systematically discriminated against women, providing no physical education for girls in state schools, closing gyms for women in 2009 and 2010 and forcing them to play in underground leagues.

While the Olympic inclusion will be a great story, it likely won't do much to affect life for Saudi women. They can't drive under any circumstances, and must ask permission if they want to get a job, go to school, take a trip, or get married. But this Olympic breakthrough and the sight of athletes like rider Dalma Rushdi Malhas will hopefully inspire them to see competitive sports as an legitimate (and attainable) path forward.

[The New York Times]