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Amy Donaldson: Equality a work in progress — even at the Olympics

Published: Sunday, July 29 2012 5:31 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012 file photo, Claressa Shields, left, and Tika Hemingway battle during a middleweight boxing match at the U.S. Olympic women's boxing team trials in Spokane, Wash. Shields is one of a crowd of female athletes grabbing the limelight at the 2012 London Olympics Games, which are quickly shaping up as a watershed for women's sports. (AP Photo/Jed Conklin, File)

Jed Conklin, AP

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Much has been made about the record number of women participating in the 2012 Olympic Games in London this summer.

And rightly so, as there is a lot to celebrate.

Consider that just four decades ago, in 1972, 1,059 of the 7,134 athletes competing (in 195 events) were women. And this summer in London, 4,862 of the 10,500 competitors are female (competing in 302 events).

And maybe the most heartening statistic is this: For the first time in history, every one of the 205 countries competing in the 2012 Games has at least one woman on its team.

For most countries, this increased female participation follows changing and evolving views on women in society, as well as in sports. That would be the case in the United States, where 40 years ago this summer a federal education bill ensured that women would have the same opportunities that men did at publicly funded institutions.

That included athletic opportunities.

So it is no coincidence then that the 2012 U.S. team actually has a few more women than men (269 females and 261 males).

But before we get carried away celebrating "The Year of the Woman" and congratulating ourselves about how far we've all come, keep in mind that not all women are as fortunate as those wearing red, white and blue.

What is inspiring to some of us looks like a fantasy to millions of others.

That's because not every country believes women should be participating in athletics, let alone on a world stage.

Saudi Arabia, which is one of three countries including women for the first time, would not have allowed two women to compete under its flag if the IOC had not threatened to bar Saudi Arabia from Olympic competition if it didn't include women.

An agreement was reached between Olympic officials and the country's government just weeks before Friday's opening ceremony. And while it may make us all feel good to say every country is now including women, the reality is that the two women included on the Saudi Arabian team are not qualified to compete at the Games, nor are they typical of the country's female population.

Sprinter Sarah Attar, who is a sophomore member of the Pepperdine track team, was born and raised in Escondido, Calif., but has dual citizenship. How significantly did the IOC bend qualifying standards for Attar? Her best 800-meter time is slower than the top six times turned in by 4A high school girls competing at this year's state championship track meet (2:20).

The other woman, judo athlete Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, trains at home with her father, who is a judo coach and official. She has never competed in public. (Sunday he threatened to pull her from the competition if she wasn't allowed to wear the head covering (Hajib) required by their Muslim faith. Judo officials are afraid the competition will become entangled in the required headgear.)

Saudi Arabian blogger Eman Al Nafjan wrote about the issue on Guardian.co.uk, and whether or not it can be called progress when the laws of her country bar women not just from participating in sports but even from watching at public arenas.

"These two are not finalists, or the best of the best of Saudi sportswomen, because according to the Saudi government, femininity and sports are incompatible," Nafjan wrote.

"Physical education for girls is banned in the public school system and while there are more than 150 official sports clubs regulated by the sports ministry, general presidency of youth welfare, none of them even allow women on the grounds, never mind to actually play. Saudi women are not only not allowed to participate, they are barred as spectators in all major stadiums.

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