The official opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics take place Friday in London, but the Games have already made history: This is the first Olympics in which all of the more than 200 participating countries have sent female athletes to compete. The U.S. team has more women than men for the first time — 269 female athletes to 261 men.
The countries of Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are fielding female athletes, something they have never done. In a dramatic last-minute turnaround, Saudi Arabia is permitting two women to compete — one in judo and another as an 800-meter runner. Saudi Arabia has been rightly criticized for failing to offer women opportunities to play and compete in sports, as outlined in a recent report by Human Rights Watch.
One of Qatar’s female athletes, air-rifle shooter Bahiya al Hamad, will carry the flag for her country at the opening of the Games. The world’s top-ranked female saber fencer, Mariel Zagunis, will carry the U.S. flag.
These are huge accomplishments for women and for the International Olympic Committee, which has aggressively promoted the inclusion of women in general and which lobbied the Saudis in particular.
Muslim women from various countries will run, shoot and scull, among other endeavors, and they will be allowed to do so in athletic clothing that still hews to the modest dress required by their religion.
Some of these women are competing by virtue of invitation from the IOC or the governing bodies of their sports. They did not all qualify by winning an array of trial competitions. But that’s part of encouraging countries that have either been resistant to sending women or done little to foster them in competitive sports.
The work is not completely done. Women still need better access to competitive sports in many places in the world, so that in the future they won’t need a helping hand to participate in the Olympics. The subject of attire should not be a stumbling block. Soccer’s governing body last year forbade women, out of safety concerns, to wear head scarves — forcing the Iranian women’s soccer team to give up a chance at qualifying for this year’s Games. Since then, that rule has been changed. However, clothing continues to be controversial: The International Judo Federation announced Thursday that because of safety concerns, it would not allow female athletes to wear head scarves, which poses a potential problem for the Saudi contestant. And there is a legal battle to allow women to participate in canoeing, which inexplicably remains closed to them in the Olympics.
Still, the presence of women from every country at the Summer Olympics is something to celebrate, even before any medals are bestowed.