A Woman’s Place: Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia send female athletes to the London games.

Saudi Arabian middle-distance runner Sarah Attar

It’s hard to imagine the Olympics without the ladies.

In fact, for lots of us — especially us fellow females — our first, or best, Olympic memory is entirely girly. Nadia Comaneci. Mary Lou Retton. Dorothy Hamill. Kristi Yamaguchi. Flo-Jo. Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Bonnie Blair. Your favorite here.

The fairer sex first found its way from the spectator seats into the competitive field at the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris, when women’s lawn tennis and golf got the official nod. Figure skating has been coed since it debuted in 1908; women’s gymnastics and track and field were added 20 years later. With the inclusion of boxing at the 2012 London Games, there is no current Olympic sporting event without a women’s competition, and just three nations — Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Brunei — that have never dispatched a female competitor to the Games.

Until now.

When the London Games bow on July 27, four Qatari women, two Saudis and one from Brunei will take part.

The Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee was the final holdout, waiting until July 12 to confirm that it will send Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, who will compete in judo, and California native Sarah Attar, a middle distance runner with dual citizenship who trains in San Diego. The women will be accompanied by male guardians and must conform to strict regulations. Still, said Attar in a statement released by the International Olympic Committee, being asked to participate “is such a huge honor … I definitely think that my participation in these Olympic Games can increase women’s participation in sports in general.”

Three of the Qatari athletes, air-rifle shooter Bahiya Al-Hamad, swimmer Nada Arkaji and sprinter Noor al-Malki, have been given wildcard entries (table tennis player Aya Magdy qualified outright) — but that doesn’t diminish the historic significance of their participation. Or the possibility of a larger female contingent from the tiny Arab state in the future. Earlier this month, the Qatar Olympic Committee (QOC) proudly reported that it held its seventh Sport Entertainment Festival for women, which saw some 300 women and girls participating in sports activities that included football and basketball.

Brunei’s first female Olympian, hurdler Maziah Mahusin — who practices with her country’s male participants — told Reuters that, “it’s a dream come true, even though it’s under the concept of universality. I am happy to see the flag of Brunei Darussalam being hoisted in London.”

With true Olympian precision, Mahusin zeroed in on the real heart of the matter. The fact that these three nations, still wrestling with severe gender inequity, will join every other in looking on with national pride as their men and their women compete is as much a victory for the women of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Brunei — and, really, the world — as any climb up an Olympic podium.

About Lori Acken

Lori just hasn't been the same since "thirtysomething" and "Northern Exposure" went off the air.
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