By Andrew Warshaw in Doha

Swimmer Nada_Mohammed_Wafa_Arkaji_22-02-12February 22 - The Middle East may not have a reputation for encouraging women's sport but Doha's 2020 Olympic bid wants to play a pioneering role in terms of changing the perception of a men-only environment.

Qatar are one of only three countries in the region, along with Saudi Arabia and Brunei, never to have sent a female athlete to the Olympics but this is about to change at London 2012.

Two female athletes, including swimmer Nada Mohammed Wafa Arkaji (pictured), have qualified "by invitation" and efforts are ongoing behind the scenes to secure two more.

At a high-profile news conference on Monday (February 20) unveiling details of Doha's bid book, Fahad Juma, deputy chief executive, technical bid and project management for Doha 2020, identified a high performance women's training centre as a key part of Doha's strategy.

"We want to welcome women and girls from across the Arab world," Juma said.

Doha, of course, has long hosted a number of international events involving women,  most recently last week's annual Women's Tennis Association (WTA) Qatar Ladies Open event won by Australian Open champion and world number one, Victoria Azarenka.

But when it comes to promoting sport among their own female communities, Arab countries feel very differently.

Qatar sportswomen
It is a complex issue but Juma believes Doha is on a mission to break down barriers and provide equal opportunities for both genders.

"It's part of our vision," he said.

"We want to be a sports hub for women of different cultures and backgrounds, a place they can come to and experience what it's like to be an Olympian.

"After we hosted the 2006 Asian Games, some of our neighbours started looking at us in terms of what we could achieve.

"We hope that by adding a high performance centre, it will create a kind of positive jealousy so that other countries can see the benefits.

"That's why we are keen to be, if you like, the messenger."

Sheikh Saoud Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, secretary general of the Qatar Olympic Committee (QOC) and Doha 2020 vice-chairman, said the recent Arab spring had brought about a change of thinking in the entire region.

"The youth who constitute a considerable majority are making rapid strides," he said.

"A high performance centre for women will have a big impact if the International Olympic Committee (IOC) does us the honour of giving us the 2020 Games."

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