Joan Smith: It really is the taking part that counts

The Saudis tried to ban their women athletes from the Olympics. Now they have a new plan, but we shouldn't fall for that

Two years ago, a Saudi rider won a bronze medal in a show-jumping event at the Youth Olympics in Singapore. It would have been a significant achievement for Saudi Arabia, which had previously managed to win only two medals in its entire Olympic history, except for one thing: the rider was not an official representative of the kingdom. Dalma Rushdi Malhas had – and has, it seems – as much chance of being part of the Saudi Olympic team as the horse that was half of their medal-winning combination. You've guessed: Malhas is a woman.

Until last week, it looked as though the Saudi position might be softening in the run-up to the Olympic Games in London. Then, on Thursday, the president of the Saudi Olympic Committee, who is effectively the country's sports minister, reverted to the old hard line. "At present, we are not endorsing any female Saudi participation in the Olympics or other international championships," Prince Nawaf bin Faisal declared at a press conference in Jeddah. "There are hundreds, if not thousands, of women who practise sports, but in private."

The prince conceded that his government would not actively prevent Saudi women from competing as individuals in the Games, but they will not be included in the official delegation. With Qatar and Brunei saying they may send female athletes for the first time, Saudi Arabia looks set to be the only country excluding women from its Olympic team.

There is a tricky problem here for the organisers of the 2012 Games, who will have to decide what to do with Malhas and other Saudi women who aren't allowed to appear with the official delegation in the opening ceremony. Do they just tag along at the back, like social outcasts?

There is a simpler solution, which is for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ban Saudi Arabia from taking part in the London Games unless it allows female athletes to represent their country. Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation, has called for exactly this course of action. "If... reports are to be believed, we would expect the IOC to defend the Olympic Charter and exclude Saudi Arabia from IOC membership and the London 2012 Olympic Games," she said.

There is a precedent: the IOC barred Afghanistan from the Sydney Olympics in 2000 because of the Taliban's discrimination against women. In the apartheid era, South Africa faced a ban because it did not allow black and white athletes to participate together in sport at home. There's no doubt that the latest Saudi position is in breach of the Olympic Charter, which states that "any form of discrimination on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with the Olympic movement". It also asserts that "the practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind."

The Saudi embassy boasts on its website that "sports training programmes in a diverse range of fields from archery to soccer are available to Saudis of every age at the country's sports facilities", but fails to mention that women and girls are excluded from nearly all. According to a report published by Human Rights Watch recently, the Saudi government "continues to deny women and girls their right to practise physical education in schools and to practise recreational and competitive sports more generally".

State schooling has been provided for Saudi girls since the 1960s, but they do not have PE classes; they're excluded from the 153 sports clubs regulated by Nawaf's ministry, and the Saudi government has closed private gyms for women. In a country where between two-thirds and three-quarters of adults are overweight or obese, lack of exercise is a problem. A campaign by women against the ban on women's gyms had the sarcastic slogan: "Let her get fat".

It is often argued that discrimination against women in international sport is a reliable indicator of wider inequality. That's certainly true of Saudi Arabia. Saudi women are infantilised: they are denied the right to drive and need "permission" from a male guardian to work, study, travel and get access to some forms of healthcare. The kingdom's rulers and its clerical establishment share a paranoid attitude to women, whose faces, hair and bodies must be covered in public. Nawaf is reported to have said that Saudi sports organisations would be in touch with any unofficial Saudi Olympic competitors in order to ensure their actions "comported with Islamic law".

Saudi opposition to women taking part in sport comes from conservative clerics who have the ear of the Saudi royal family. One prominent opponent, Dr Abd al-Karim al-Khudair, has argued that opening sports clubs to women would be "corrupting" and "satanic". Another, Sheikh Abdullah al-Mani, has suggested that that health of a "virgin girl" would be adversely affected by running and jumping. These supposed authorities have not explained how women from other Muslim countries are able to represent their countries at the Olympics. At the Beijing Games in 2008, there were 127 female athletes from Muslim countries; even Iran included three women in its team.

Saudi Arabia escapes criticism far too often because it buys arms and sells oil, but international complicity in its treatment of female athletes would shame the world. The IOC is under pressure to discuss the Saudi position on women at its executive board meeting next month, but the Olympic host country has its own responsibilities. The UK is a signatory to international treaties upholding the rights of women, and discrimination on the grounds of gender is against the law in this country.

The message for the Government is clear: if the Saudis refuse to send women to London this summer, there is absolutely no reason why they should allowed to send men.;