Inside Lines: Saudi sexism haunts hopes for trouble-free London Games


Apart from the threat of transport strikes, terrorist attacks and a freak snowstorm on Opening Ceremony night, the one thing the organisers of London's Olympics dread most is a disruptive demo.

We fear at least one may be looming.

The refusal of Saudi Arabia to include female athletesin their team for 2012, in direct contravention of the Olympic Charter, which prohibits all discrimination, including on grounds of gender, has so angered women's and human rights groups worldwide that public protests can be expected before and during the Games. Unless, of course, the IOC president, Jacques Rogge, mans up and kicks out the sexist Saudis.

Exactly seven years ago this weekend I attended the first Islamic Games in Mecca, the only western journalist observing 7,000 athletes from 54 countries competing in 13 sports. And not a woman in sight. Either as a competitor or spectator.

It was whispered to me then that Rogge had written to the Saudis suggesting in the strongest possible terms that their absolute ban on women from the sporting arena had to be addressed. He indicated that by the 2012 Olympics all nations must have female participation. The inference was clear. If it did not comply, one of the world's wealthiest sporting nations could face expulsion, just as South Africa did over its own form of discrimination. It was a yellow card.

Yet Saudi Arabia's disgraceful sexual apartheid continues. After hints that at least there might be a token female representation for London, last week the sands shifted, Prince Nawal bin Faisal, the president of the Saudi Arabia Olympic Committee, insisting: "We are not endorsing any Saudi female participation at the moment in the Olympics or other international championships."

Why the IOC have tolerated this situation for so long is beyond comprehension. One hopes it is not because the Saudis are a wealthy and powerful presence on a body which doff their caps all too readily to the rich and the royal.

Sue Tibballs, the chief executive of the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation, is calling for a ban along with the former Canadian Olympic swimmer Nikki Dryden, now a human rights lawyer, who is orchestrating global support for a formal protest in London.

The Saudis have had ample warning that their feudal cultural taboos must be removed. Time for Rogge's red card.

Helping hand for Ennis?

Jessica Ennis's coach, Tony Minichiello, is pushing for Britain's heptathlon star to be given a helping hand towards a gold medal in London. He says Ennis needs to be grouped in a pool with her main rivals, to give her that extra competitive edge.

"Under the present rules athletes are grouped together based not on their overall heptathlon score but their ability in each event. What happened in the world championships last year [when Ennis lost to the Russian Tatyana Chernova despite beating her in five of the seven events] was that because she wasn't ranked in the top 16 in the javelin, they put her in a different pool against people she would not really be com- peting against for a medal. Surely it would make for a better spectacle to have all the main protagonists grouped together, far more entertaining for the crowd to see the main contenders putting pressure on each other."

Iron Mike takes the mic

Once he was "the baddest man on the planet", but a much-mellowed Mike Tyson is wowing a different sort of audience in Las Vegas with his one-man show. He brings it to Britain next weekend, although venues in Stoke and Slough are some way from the MGM Grand.

We hear his routine's a knockout. Just as well, as it would take a brave soul to heckle him.

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