LONDON – The IOC is optimistic about ongoing talks with Saudi Arabia on sending women to the Olympics despite reports the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom reversed its pledge to send female athletes to the London Games.
Saudi leaders have been under pressure to end the practice of sending all-male teams to international competitions. A report in a Saudi-owned newspaper said this week that no female athletes have qualified for the Olympics and no women will be included on the team which will be competing in equestrian, athletics, and weightlifting.
"We are still talking to the Saudi NOC (national Olympic committee) and remain confident of a positive outcome," the International Olympic Committee said in a statement to The Associated Press on Wednesday.
IOC President Jacques Rogge told the AP last week that he was "cautiously optimistic" the Saudis would include women but he could not "guarantee it 100 percent."
Human Rights Watch said this week's announcement in the pan-Arab daily newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat -- an important media tool for Saudi rulers -- suggests Saudi Arabia will not send any women to London.
The New York-based rights group urged the IOC to bar the country from participating for violating the equality rules in the Olympic Charter.
Saudi officials could not be reached to comment.
The Saudi Embassy in London said two weeks ago that women who qualify will be allowed to compete.
An unidentified Saudi official told Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper Sunday that there is no "female team taking part in the three fields" men qualified to compete in London. He also said no female athlete had taken part in qualifying events in Saudi Arabia, which severely restricts women in public life. Women practice sports in the kingdom, including playing in clandestine football and basketball leagues.
"It's not that the Saudis couldn't find a woman athlete, it's that their discriminatory policies have so far prevented one from emerging," said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at HRW.
Qatar and Brunei, two other countries that have never sent a female athletes to Olympics, are expected to include women on their teams for the London Games.
About 10,500 athletes are expected to compete in London, representing more than 200 national Olympic committees.
If some arrangement can be made for the Saudis to send women, all national Olympic committees in London would include women athletes for the first time in Olympic history.