LONDON — IOC President Jacques Rogge cannot guarantee “100 percent” that female athletes from Saudi Arabia will compete at the London Olympics, although he remains optimistic the Gulf kingdom will send women to the games for the first time.
Rogge told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday that the International Olympic Committee is discussing the “operational details” with Saudi officials for ending their four-decade-old policy of sending only men to the games.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei have never included women in their Olympic teams. While Qatar and Brunei have committed to sending female athletes to London, whether Saudi will do the same — and, if so, how many women will be included — remains uncertain three weeks before the start of the London Games.
“I remain cautiously optimistic on the participation of women,” Rogge said. “I cannot guarantee it 100 percent today. I cannot say how many (athletes) because I don’t know. We are still discussing operational details with the authorities.”
He declined to elaborate, but both sides have been working on identifying a few Saudi women who could go to the Olympics.
“I will tell you when I’m sure 100 percent,” Rogge said. “I will not speak out before.”
Saudi Olympic Committee president Prince Nawaf said in April that female participation had not been approved by the country’s leaders and that Saudi-based women traveling to London would be contrary to the kingdom’s traditions and norms.
But a statement released by the Saudi embassy in London last week said female athletes who qualify could be allowed to participate.
Athletes in judo and in track and field are considered possibilities.
Saudi Arabia is a deeply traditional and ultra conservative Muslim society, and women are severely restricted in public life and are not even allowed to drive.
Because Saudi women may not meet the international qualifying standards, the IOC can grant them Olympic entry based on “special circumstances.”
On a separate issue, Rogge said the IOC has not received any notification that the head of Syria’s Olympic committee has been denied a visa for the London Games by the British government.
An official involved in the Olympic movement told the AP last month that Britain refused to give Gen. Mowaffak Joumaa a visa because of his links to Syria’s President Bashar Assad.
“We don’t know anything about that,” Rogge said by telephone from Lausanne, Switzerland. “We have not heard anything, not a word. We have not been officially notified about such a decision.”
London organizers are required to notify the IOC when accredited Olympic personnel are rejected entry.
“If we get a notification, we definitely would ask the government to tell us why the person has been denied entry and then we’ll look at it,” Rogge said.
The Syrian government’s crackdown on an uprising has killed thousands of people and led to broad sanctions and a European Union travel ban on Assad and other top officials. Joumaa is not on the list.
Rogge said Syria’s national Olympic committee remains recognized by the IOC and Syrian athletes will compete under their national flag in London. The IOC is in contact with the Syrian committee to help with training and sports facilities, he said.
“We do the very best to have a good contingent of Syrians in London,” Rogge said. “I think it will be between eight and 10 athletes that will participate.”
Joumaa said last month that up to 10 athletes have qualified or been given wild-card invitations to compete in swimming, track and field, weightlifting, boxing, equestrian and shooting.
Rogge expressed confidence that London’s massive security operation for the games will not overwhelm the event. The measures include deployment of thousands of military personnel and stationing of surface-to-air missiles at six sites in and around the capital.
“The good balance will be found, with security provisions being in place but not too visible,” Rogge said. “You’re not going to see a lot of policemen with machine guns running around the venues. That’s not needed either. There are other measures, other strategies being built in.”
Rogge reiterated the IOC’s decision not to hold a moment of silence during London’s opening ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the attack by Palestinian gunmen that killed 11 Israeli team members at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Israeli and German government officials and the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee have urged the IOC to hold such an observance.
“We have been very clear that the IOC has never forgotten Munich ’72,” Rogge said. “I personally will never forget it as I was an athlete (in sailing) at that time. We have paid a solemn memory and homage to the athletes on the day after the massacre in the Olympic Stadium.”
Rogge said he has attended several ceremonies with the Israeli Olympic Committee and Israeli athletes during recent games and will take part in a reception in London to pay tribute to the Munich victims.
“We have remembered the athletes on a regular basis,” he said. “They will be remembered at these games, too. We have not forgotten the athletes.”
Separately, Rogge welcomed a decision by the U.S. Olympic Committee to consider bidding for the 2024 Summer Olympics or 2026 Winter Games. The USOC said Tuesday it would not bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Earlier this year, the USOC removed a major roadblock for another bid when it resolved a long-simmering feud over revenue sharing with the IOC.
“I’m glad to hear they will consider ’24/’26,” Rogge said. “The general atmosphere will definitely be a better one for the USOC after the new deal we signed with them. It’s a new situation for both parties. The United States has a great reputation in staging very good games.”