Olympics: Saudi sets rules for first women competitors

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Saudi sportswomen, who have been given the go-ahead to compete in the Olympics for the first time in London later this month, must respect the ultra-conservative kingdom's rules, its sports chief said in remarks published on Monday.

All women competitors must dress modestly, be accompanied by a male guardian and not mix with men during the Games, Prince Nawaf bin Faisal told the Al-Jazirah newspaper.

Saudi sportswomen may only take part if they do so "wearing suitable clothing that complies with sharia" (Islamic law) and "the athlete's guardian agrees and attends with her," he said.

"There must also be no mixing with men during the Games," he added.

"The athlete and her guardian must pledge not to break these conditions," he said.

The Saudi embassy in London issued a statement last month announcing that Saudi women would be allowed to compete for the first time in this year's Olympics.

The Saudi Olympic Committee will "oversee participation of women athletes who qualify," it said.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei are the only three countries never to have sent women athletes to the Olympics.

But Qatar had already announced it will send a four-woman team to London.

The issue of women in sport remains extremely sensitive in Saudi Arabia, where women are not even allowed to drive cars and the authorities shut down private gyms for women in 2009 and 2010.

There had been increasing pressure on the Saudis to fall into line over sending a women's team with International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge admitting in April that he was conducting lengthy talks with the kingdom's rulers.

Nawaf said that for previous Games "we had no women athletes... But now there are many Saudi female athletes who have expressed to the IOC and international unions their desire to participate."

Human Rights Watch warned last month that despite the Saudi decision on the London Games, millions of women are still banned from sports in the kingdom.

"It's an important step forward, but fails to address the fundamental barriers to women playing sports in the kingdom," the New York-based watchdog said.

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