International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said Saturday he is "cautiously optimistic" that Saudi Arabia, one of three nations that has never sent a female athlete to the Olympics, will send women to the next Olympic Games in London.
"We are working together with the national olympic committee of Saudi Arabia to ensure the participation of female athletes at the next Olympic Games," Rogge said in closing remarks at the IOC Women and Sports conference in Los Angeles. "I'm cautiously optimistic that we will succeed."
Earlier in the week Human Rights Watch called on the IOC to require that Saudi Arabia's participation in Olympic sporting events be contingent upon the Arab country allowing girls and women to play competitve sports.
In interviews with Saudi women and international sporting officials, the group found that Saudi government restrictions put sports beyond the reach of almost all women in the Gulf nation. The few women who play sports are limited to exercising at home or at expensive gyms or playing in segregated underground leagues.
The group wants Saudi Arabia to start introducing physical education for girls in schools and allocating money for women's sports in the youth ministry, the Saudi national Olympic committee and Saudi sports federations within the year. Human Rights Watch says such steps are necessary to prove the Saudis' efforts to end discrimination against women in sports and allow the country to be represented in Olympic events.
Rogge acknowledged Saturday night that the IOC was strongly encouraging the Saudi government address the issue. He pointed to the success of Saudi equestrian athlete Dalma Rushdi Malhas who won a bronze at the 2010 Singapore Youth Olympics.
"It's not necessarily her Olympic games, but definitely we are working closely with their national Olympic committee and I'm cautiously hopeful that we will be successful," Rogge said.
The IOC has previously criticized the Saudis for failing to send women athletes to the Olympics. However, according to Human Rights Watch, the IOC hasn't attached any conditions to the nation's participation in the games. The IOC charter states that sports are a right for everyone and bans discrimination in practicing sports on the basis of gender.
Brunei and Qatar are the other two countries who have never sent a woman to the Olympics. Qatar said last summer it hopes to send up to four female athletes to the 2012 Games.The Associated Press contributed to this report.