Saudi Arabia will send four women to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, doubling its female participation after two women competed for the first time at the 2012 London Games.
Hosam al-Qurashi, executive director of the Saudi Olympic Committee, told The Associated Press on Sunday that two of the women will participate in track and field, one in judo and one in fencing.
The track and field athletes are Sarah Attar, who competed in 2012, and Cariman Abu al-Jadail. Judoka Wujud Fahmi and fencer Lubna al-Omair are the other competitors.
Attar, Abu al-Jadail and Fahmi have been training in the United States, where they are students. Al-Omair will be traveling to Rio from the eastern Saudi city of Khobar.
The decision to double the number of women athletes comes amid a backdrop of incremental, significant openings for Saudi women, including the right to vote and run as candidates for the first time in the country’s elections for municipal council seats in December.
Al-Qurashi said a total of 11 Saudi athletes are competing in Rio, five of which were given wild card entries by the International Olympic Committee, including all four women.
The female athletes, al-Qurashi said, will be participating in line with the kingdom’s social guidelines, meaning they will be adhering to the Muslim country’s traditional and religious requirements regarding their attire and the sports they participate in.
Women in Saudi Arabia are bound by strict rules when it comes to attire. They cannot be seen by men while jogging in sweat pants, much less wearing fitted or revealing shorts. Most women in Saudi Arabia cover their hair and face with a veil known as the niqab and all women are required to wear a loose black dress known as the abaya in public.
For Saudi women, participating in sports is an act of defiance in a country where female access to exercise is outright shunned by ultra-conservatives .
Physical education is not on the curriculum for girls in Saudi public schools. However, private female-only gyms and sports clubs are growing in popularity in the country’s major cities.
Saudi Arabia’s largest female university in the capital, Riyadh — the Princess Nora University — also boasts a state-of-the-art sports complex with a swimming pool, gym, indoor running track, and sprawling outdoor soccer fields in a major shift for a country where female athletics have long been frowned upon.
Al-Qurashi said the goal in this year’s Olympics is to have the players gain experience and exposure to an international sports competition. Looking ahead, he said the Saudi Olympic team does not intend to rely on wild card entries.
“The Saudi sports system is going through a major reformation,” he said. “Our strategy is we want to build athletes that qualify for the Olympics.
“We hope that one of them, God willing, will surprise us with unexpected results,” he added.