For the first time in Olympic history all 204 participating nations will include female athletes after Saudi Arabia yesterday belatedly bowed to pressure and added two women to its team for the London Games.
Sarah Attar, a 17-year-old middle-distance runner based in the US, and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, a judoka, were named after months of negotiation between the Saudi authorities and the International Olympic Committee. The Saudis join Qatar and Brunei in fielding women at the Games for the first time.
With London organisers dogged by last minute problems, it is a timely fillip for the IOC, and its president Jacques Rogge in particular. The Belgian has pushed the issue as a key part of the last Games of his 12-year tenure.
As recently as April senior Saudi figures were insisting they would "not endorse" female participation despite gender equality being enshrined in the IOC's charter. Discussions between the IOC and the Saudis finally reached a conclusion at the start of this week when the Saudis agreed to select the two women nominated by the governing body. If a country refuses to select women it can ultimately be excluded from the Games.
Rogge said: "We are very pleased. It can count as a symbol. The IOC has been striving to ensure a greater gender balance at the Olympic Games, and today's news can be seen as an encouraging evolution."
The IOC will continue to provide scholarships to young female Saudi athletes in the hope of raising standards and sporting opportunities, which remain severely limited in the country. Rogge added: "We have discussed with Saudis on how they could continue to improve the situation."
Attar, who is training in San Diego ahead of the Games, said: "It's such a huge honour and I hope that it can really make some big strides for women over there to get more involved."
Human rights organisations welcomed the move. "It's an important precedent that will create space for women to get rights and it will be hard for Saudi hard-liners to roll back," said Minky Worden of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The London Games is likely to see the highest number of female participants in Olympic history with an increase expected on the 42 per cent in Beijing four years ago. As recently as the 1996 Games in Atlanta, 26 countries did not include women. In Beijing that number had been cut to three. Britain has selected its largest number of women with 48 per cent of the team being female. In another first, boxing will include female competitors, making this the first Games in which men and women contest all sports.
Brunei has entered a single athlete, while Qatar will send five women, including Bahiya Al-Hamad, a shooter who will also be carrying the country's flag at the opening ceremony.