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Owen Gibson, Thursday 12th July 2012 22:06
The London Olympics will be the first to include female athletes from every competing nation after Saudi Arabia agreed to a mixed team following protracted negotiations and heavy lobbying.
International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said he was "very pleased" that Saudi Arabia had finally agreed to send female athletes.
Qatar and Brunei, the only other countries who failed to field a female athlete in Beijing, had already agreed to send women to the London Games. Two Saudi Arabian athletes, in judo and athletics, will compete in London.
The two female Saudi competitors are Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani in judo and 800-metre runner Sarah Attar.
"A big inspiration for participating in the Olympic Games is being one of the first women for Saudi Arabia to be going," the 17-year-old Attar said in an IOC video from her US training base in San Diego.
"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 in sport."
Attar and Shahrkhani were entered for the London Games by the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee by Monday's deadline.
Neither qualified to compete in the Olympics, but received special invitations from the IOC "based on the quality of the athletes.
"We've looked at the ones who are the closest to qualifying standards and these were these two athletes," said Rogge. "That's always the bottom line in all these invitations."
Rights groups hailed the decision as a step forward for Saudi women, but said the fundamental problem of segregation remained firmly in place.
"The participation of two Saudi women in London is an important breakthrough, but will not hide the fact that millions of Saudi girls are effectively banned from sports in schools in Saudi Arabia," said Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch.
"Now is the time for the International Olympic Committee to use its leverage and lay down achievable conditions to jump-start sport in the kingdom."
The IOC said Brunei has entered one woman in track and field, Maziah Mahusin, while Qatar has entered four female athletes – swimmer Nada Arkaji, track athlete Noor al-Malki, table tennis player Aya Magdy and shooter Bahiya al-Hamad.
Qatar announced on Wednesday that al-Hamad will be the country's flag-bearer at the opening ceremony on 27 July.
"I'm overwhelmed to have been asked to carry the Qatari flag at the opening ceremony," she said. "It's a truly historic moment for all athletes."