By Duncan Mackay at the Main Press Centre on the Olympic Park in London

Sadia Arabian_Olympic_Committee_logoJuly 12 - Saudi Arabia will send its first ever female athletes to a major competition after selecting two women for London 2012, it has been announced today by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). 

They are judoka Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, who will compete in the +78 kilogram category, and runner Sarah Attar, who will take part in the 800 metres. 

Until now, the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom, which made its debut in the Olympics at Munich in 1972 it has only ever sent male competitors to the Games. 

The athletes, invited by the IOC, were entered by the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee by the official deadline of Monday (July 9).

"This is very positive news and we will be delighted to welcome these two athletes in London in a few weeks time," said IOC President Jacques Rogge.

"The IOC has been working very closely with the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee and I am pleased to see that our continued dialogue has come to fruition.

"The IOC has been striving to ensure a greater gender balance at the Olympic Games, and today's news can be seen as an encouraging evolution.

"With Saudi Arabian female athletes now joining their fellow female competitors from Qatar and Brunei Darussalam, it means that by London 2012 every National Olympic Committee will have sent women to the Olympic Games."

Attar, who is only 17 and based in San Diego in California, claimed she was honoured by the prospect of competing for her country at London 2012.

"A big inspiration for participating in the Olympic Games is being one of the first women for Saudi Arabia to be going," she said.

"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."

Persuading Saudi Arabia to lift their boycott on women competing is a personal triumph for Rogge, whose 12 year reign as IOC President is due to finish next year.

Fifteen years ago at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, 26 National Olympic Committees (NOCs), had yet to include female athletes in their delegations.

Four years ago in Beijing, the figure had dropped to just three – the three NOCs that have confirmed they will be sending female athletes to London 2012, thus marking a historic milestone in Olympic history.

The Olympic Games have seen female participation rise from 1.8 per cent at London 1908 to 9.5 per cent at London 1948 and more than 42 percent at Beijing 2008.

The latter figure is expected to be improved upon again this summer.

Another milestone in the fight for gender equality in sport at London 2012 will be the inclusion of women's boxing on the Olympic programme, ensuring that women will compete in every sport for the first time in the 116-year history of the modern Olympic Games.

"The news that Saudi Arabia will send two female athletes to complete in the London 2012 Games represents a real victory for women's sport," said Sue Tibballs, chief executive of Britain's Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF).

"We are delighted to have been a part of the international campaign that has resulted in today's announcement, which means that by London 2012 every country will have sent a female competitor to the Olympic Games.

"With more events and more medals up for grabs than ever before we think that London 2012 will be the best Olympic Games for women yet.

"We urge the IOC to capitalise on this by encouraging countries across the world to invest in women's sport so that all women are given the opportunity to become fit and active."

Contact the writer of this story at [email protected]

Related stories
June 2012: Saudi Arabian woman's hopes of making history at London 2012 ruined by injury
June 2012: Tim Woodhouse - Saudi Arabia's decision on female athletes is more symbolic than revolutionary
June 2012: Saudi Arabia to allow women to compete at London 2012
May 2012: Rogge refuses to give Saudi Arabia escape route by letting women compete under IOC flag
April 2012: Saudi Arabia at centre of new London 2012 scandal