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IOC in talks with Saudi over male-only team

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The International Olympic Committee has said it is in talks with Saudi Arabia, after Human Rights Watch called for Riyadh to be barred from participating in the London Olympic Games.

The international rights organisation's statement on Tuesday came in response to Saudia Arabia's announcement, reversing an earlier decision that it would not send any female athletes to compete in the London Olympics.

"We are still talking to the Saudi NOC [National Olympic Committee] and remain confident of a positive outcome,'' the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said in a statement to the Associated Press news agency on Wednesday.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on its website: "The International Olympic Committee should bar Saudi Arabia from participating in the 2012 Games because of its clear violation of the Olympic Charter."

The Olympic Charter states that the games seek "to encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women".

With just over two weeks until the Olympics start on July 27, the pan-Arab Saudi-owned daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported that no women had qualified in the three fields ( track, equestrian and weightlifting) at the London games for which male Saudi athletes would be representing the country.

But the Saudi embassy in London had previously announced in late June that "qualified" female candidates would be allowed to compete, saying that the Saudi NOC would "oversee participation of women athletes who can qualify".

The possiblity of female participation in the games has been impacted by contradictory statements to the media.

Prince Nawaf bin Faisal, the head of the Saudi NOC, said last week that Saudi sportswomen had indeed been given the go-ahead to compete in the Olympics.

He clarified in comments published in Saudi's Al-Jazirah newspaper, they may only do so by "wearing suitable clothing that complies with Sharia", "the athletes' guardians agree and attend with them" and that they do not mix with men at the games.

A month earlier, however, the prince had said he would "not endorse female participation", as reported in Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National.

'Do the right thing'

"It’s not that the Saudis couldn’t find women athletes, it’s that their discriminatory policies have so far prevented one from emerging," said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at HRW.

"But there is still time for Saudi Arabia to do the right thing and allow women to participate in the London Games by including women in the 'universality' slots that don't require advance qualification."

"The bottom line is that Saudi Arabia broke its promise, is breaking the rules, and should absolutely not be allowed to participate in the London 2012 Games while excluding women from its team," said Worden.

The organisation called for the IOC to bar the Gulf country as it had banned Taliban-led Afghanistan in 2000 for not allowing women to participate in any sport.

HRW also called on the organisation to "set a timeline and benchmarks for introducing physical education for girls in public and private schools, allowing the creation of women’s gyms and sports clubs, and creating women’s sections in the Sports Ministry and the National Olympic Committee".

"Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory policies toward women are at the root of its failure to send female athletes to the London Games," Worden said.

Worden called on the kingdom to be barred from the Olympics "until it ends the policies that deprive millions of Saudi women and girls of basic rights".

Single male-only team

The decision by Saudi Arabia not to allow its female athletes to compete in the games makes it the only country that will not send women to the London Olympics.

Qatar and Brunei, like Saudi Arabia, have fielded all-male teams at previous Olympics. But both countries have confirmed that their teams in London will include women. Qatar hosted the 2011 Arab Games, which included female participation, noted the HRW statement.

Qatar announced it planned to send a women's team to London made up of shooter Bahia Al-Hamad, swimmer Nada Wafa Arakji and sprinter Noor Al-Malki. Brunei will also send hurdler Maziah Mahusin.

If Saudi Arabia chooses to overturn the recent decision and uphold its June commitment by sending a female athlete to the international sporting event, it would mark a first for the country.

Dalma Malhas, an equestrian contestant and one of the country's only female athletes, was ruled out of the competition last month due to an injury.

About 10,500 athletes are expected to compete in London, representing more than 200 national Olympic committees.

If some arrangement can be made for the Saudis to send women, all national Olympic teams in London would include women athletes - for the first time in Olympic history.

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