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Rights group demands Saudi Arabia allow women at Olympics

Sarah Kureshi, an American Muslim athlete who has competed at the Islamic Women Games, speaks at a news conference held by Human Rights Watch in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012. The group is calling on the International Olympic Committee to require that Saudi Arabia's participation in Olympic sporting events, including the upcoming London Games, be contingent upon the Arab country allowing girls and women to play competitive sports after issuing a report Wednesday saying that Saudi Arabia is violating the IOC charter's pledge of equality. The country has never sent a woman to compete in the Olympics.

Reed Saxon/The Associated Press

The lobbying group Human Rights Watch has called on the International Olympic Committee to consider barring Saudi Arabia from the Games unless the country moves swiftly to get women onto its Olympic teams.

The organization is trying to change both the culture and the sporting world in conservative Saudi Arabia – and a Canadian human rights lawyer thinks it has enough "wiggle room" to succeed.

On Wednesday the human rights watchdog moved to force the paternalistic kingdom – where male family members are considered guardians of women – to live up to anti-discrimination language in the Olympic charter.

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In an ultimatum delivered at a news conference in Los Angeles, the group said Saudi Arabia must introduce physical education for girls in all schools and allocate funds to women's sport in the youth ministry, the Saudi National Olympic Committee, and Saudi sports federations.

"I know there's some discussion between the IOC and Saudi," said Dick Pound, the IOC member in Canada. Things are moving, albeit slowly, but "something like this does no harm."

"There's wiggle room that you're starting to see come out of Saudi Arabia," said Nikki Dryden, a Calgary native who is a human rights lawyer in New York. A former Canadian Olympic swimmer, Dryden spoke at the Human Rights Watch gathering in Los Angeles.

"You're starting to see strong statements from the IOC that we want to have women from every country that sends a men's team.

"It's been a 30-year journey for the IOC to open up the door to women. We're getting so close. We're at a place where there's only three countries left that haven't sent women to the Olympic Games," Dryden said, identifying Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar. Brunei and Qatar, do not bar women from competitive sports and Qatar has said it plans to send women athletes to the London 2012 Olympic Games.

"This [gender equality]is the first big story of the Olympic Games. People are bringing up things that are off the playing field."

Saudi Arabia is still a male-dominated society. Women require permission from a male legal guardian for a job, education, medical procedures, opening a business or bank account, travelling, marrying and driving. Women face legally mandated segregation in all public places, including schools. In a 51-page statement, the human rights group – which protested the Beijing regime's record on rights during the torch run before the last Summer Olympics – alleges systemic discrimination in denying girls physical education in state schools. It accused the youth and sports ministry of discrimination in licensing women's gyms and supporting only all-male sports clubs. The group said only one private sports company, Jeddah United, boasts women's basketball teams.

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The National Olympic Committee of Saudi Arabia has no programs for women athletes.

"It gives the Olympic movement itself a black eye," said Christoph Wilcke, the group's senior Middle East researcher.

In its interviews with Saudi women and international sporting officials, the report said Saudi government restrictions put sport "beyond the reach of almost all women." It said there is no government sports infrastructure for women and courses, trainers, and referees are limited exclusively to men, while women are limited to fitness gyms that rarely feature swimming pools, a running track, or playing fields for team sports.

The IOC charter says sport is a universal right and bans discrimination in practising sports on the basis of gender.

The human rights group cited precedents for the IOC to ban a country from the quadrennial Games. Taliban-led Afghanistan was barred from the 2000 Sydney Olympics – in part because of discrimination against women in sport. And South Africa's former apartheid policies led to that country's ban for racial discrimination.

Minky Worden, the Human Rights Watch director of global initiatives, says there are signs Saudi women "have been increasingly asserting their rights to drive, to play sport in the kingdom – it's a dangerous thing to do but they're doing it. And our belief is that this effort from the outside ... will actually play into the hands of reformists within the kingdom."

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James Christie written sports for the Globe on staff since 1974, covering almost all beats and interviewed the big names from Joe DiMaggio, to Muhammad Ali, to Jim Brown to Wayne Gretzky. Also covered the 10 worst years in Toronto Maple Leafs hockey history. More

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