Saudi women have just been cleared to compete at something more strenuous than board games.
No more Candy Land! They're going to the Olympics!
One or two of them, anyway.
According to a statement released by the Saudi embassy in London, the men who run the kingdom have decided that any woman who runs fast enough to qualify can compete in the Summer Games a month from now.
If nothing else, it reverses the nation's four-decade-long policy of sending all-male teams to the Olympics. And it may_ or may not – signal a new skirmish in women's battles there for much more important rights. Even in the narrow context of sports, we won't know how much progress it represents until there are genuine sporting opportunities for women in Saudi Arabia, since they're nonexistent at the moment. That's by design.
Girls don't have physical education classes. The few university-age students whose privileged schools compete in sports do so only at private venues, empty stadiums or on the road. Women can't go to a gym or jog in public. None of it would have changed, either, without sustained pressure from an array of activists and the more progressive, but still mostly old-boy, network presiding over the International Olympic Committee.
"I haven't been to the Middle East, but I was in Africa with a nonprofit called `Right to Play' not too long ago," said Abby Wambach, a member of the U.S. Olympic and World Cup soccer squads. "We were teaching girls how to fight ... not literally how to fight, but how to fight for the ball in a game. You can't believe the light that goes off in their heads after something like that. All they wanted to talk about afterward was `Is it OK to fight for this? And this and this and so on.
"We take so much for granted over here that we forget," she added, "in some places, even a little something is better than nothing. It has to start with something and, who knows, seeing an athlete on TV is how a lot of us got started."
In Beijing four years ago, Saudi Arabia, along with Brunei and Qatar, were the last holdouts sending single-sex teams. The IOC convinced the other two nations to add women by offering carrots and sticks. It helped identify Olympic-caliber athletes, as well as providing some logistical and developmental support. It also reminded Qatar, a tiny Middle Eastern land with big sporting ambitions and an eye on hosting the 2020 Olympics, that a "men-only" welcome sign was going to be a problem with bid committees staffed and run by women.
The Saudis, though, haven't been easy to budge. As recently as April, in a nod to the religious conservatives who wield influence over every aspect of life there, Saudi Olympic Committee boss Prince Nawaf turned a hearty thumbs down on the idea. For a while after that, it appeared the Saudis had settled on a compromise candidate to get around the threat of IOC sanctions – imposed on the country's officials and administrators rather than athletes. That candidate would have been equestrian Dalma Rushdi Malhas, who was born in Ohio and trains and lives nearly the entire year in Europe. And she would have competed covered head to toe.
But that option was short-circuited last week, when Malhas failed to meet the Olympic standard for qualification. That could mean the Saudis will have to circle back to two women the IOC have reportedly been pushing in discussions, but have so far refused to identify. One competes in judo, and IOC officials believe she can qualify on her own; the other competes in track and field but may need an exemption.
If that seems too hush-hush an approach by the IOC, consider that one Saudi female athlete recently canceled an appearance as part of the torch relay.
"The Olympics, to me, are a movement – literally moving people to be better," Wambach said. "And so any time you get together in an environment like the Olympics, any sporting event really, you get to put lots of other issues aside and get everyone pulling in the same direction. Women in most of the rest of the world already know how to cooperate. What they can learn from playing sport is that there's power in competing, too.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.