No medals were won at the Rio Olympics by either men or women in the Saudi team made up of 13 athletes. For Saudi Arabia, it was the second time for women to participate since the last Olympic Games in London in 2012. Their performance did not get them far past the first rounds, however.
“Our early departure in the competition will have a big impact on the renaissance of Saudi athletics that otherwise wouldn’t happen if we’d won gold medals,” said Lubna Al-Omair in a tweet last week after her defeat in women’s fencing against Brazilian competitor Tais Rochel. “It’s a long path and we’re still in the beginning but what’s important is that we will get there. Very optimistic about the future of Saudi sports,” she states.
With no organized sports programs for women and underdeveloped training facilities in certain sports even for men, there is prospect for change in sports and athletics in the Kingdom.
The appointment of Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al-Saud as vice president for the new division of women’s affairs at the General Sports Authority brings hope for many in Saudi Arabia. As a social activist, entrepreneur, and promoter of women’s health, expectations are high for advancement in women’s sports — having more opportunities to practice sports professionally, and getting more chance to compete at world-class level and bringing home medals in the future.
The new decision was a move by the Saudi Council of Ministers, resonating with the Vision 2030 announced last spring that declared: “Opportunities for the regular practice of sports have often been limited. This will change.”
The plan further reveals targets for regular participation in sports and establishing dedicated facilities and programs in a bid “to excel and lead selected sports regionally and globally”.
“The princess’s job will be to help the country catch up with the rest of the world in regard to women’s sports”, a spokesperson for the Saudi Olympic Committee was quoted by Runner’s World magazine.
This year, news of the three female athletes joining runner Sarah Attar, who made headlines in the last Games, was undisclosed until right immediately before the commencement of the Rio Olympics.
Despite finishing last in the women’s marathon at 3:16:11, Attar received encouraging feedback from fellow citizens back home. Attar has had previous experience in running abroad and participated in marathons in the United States.
“My participation is bigger than myself,” she said in an interview with Runner’s World magazine. “Finishing strong would speak of the importance of women’s presence in the Olympics, and the strength anyone can have.”
Similarly, sprinter Kariman Abuljadayel was unable to qualify for the following rounds after finishing 7th in the 100-meter race. “Proud to be one of the 5 women who have changed Olympic history at Rio 2016 even though I’m the only one among the list who hasn’t won a medal…that means winning medals isn’t the only element of change. Change is about struggle, effort, and never giving up,” she wrote in a post on her Instagram account.
Joud Fahmy, who was to participate in women’s 52kg in judo, did not personally reveal the reason for not competing. However, the official account of the Saudi Olympics committee stated that Fahmy would not be participating due to injuries during her training.
The four women were given wildcard entries by the International Olympics Committee (IOC) so they can compete without meeting formal qualification standards, according to a local daily quoting Saudi Olympic Committee Chief Executive Hosam Alqurashi. The IOC repeatedly calls for all countries to include women participants.
Attar, Abuljadayel, Al-Omair and Fahmy marked a historic step in the world of sports, opening the doors for Saudi women who often are involved in sports but not usually in national teams at the Olympics.
“My participation in the Olympics impacted me greatly,” further said Lubna Al-Omair last week on Twitter. “I’m glad and honored I participated and represented my country in the biggest ceremony in the world of sports.”
In what was considered a passive approach toward athletics, the Kingdom has publicly shifted its course to proactively promoting sports, for women as well. After revealing that youth are “unsatisfied” with the Sports Authority’s initiatives and programs, the National Transformation Plan for 2030 declared its goal of raising the bar from 25% of Saudi workers in the elite sports sector to 40% and increasing the percentage of Saudis exercising “regularly” from 13% to 20% by 2030.
Preparations for the next Games in Tokyo 2020, however, remain undetermined.