Saudi Arabia this week sent a list of potential members of their London 2012 team to the International Olympic Committee. It included women, heralding the possibility of first female Saudi participation in the Games.
"The IOC is confident Saudi Arabia is working to include women athletes," they said an statement issued on Monday.
It is hard to overstate the significance of what would be a truly benchmark Olympic Games – already scheduled to be that in which men and women achieve numerical parity, with the right to compete in all of the same sports.
But don't hold your breath. Powerful radical forces retain a grip on Saudi society. It's challenging for Western minds to grasp the scale of continuing opposition to exercise for women in this Islamic stronghold. Personally, I find it harder to grasp the Olympic movement's ambivalence to its own principles.
They established a women-and-sport working group in 1995, but it was July 2007 before they amended their charter to: "encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures . . ."
Moroccan Nawal el Moutawakel, the first woman from an Islamic-majority nation to become an Olympic champion (1984, 400m hurdles) remains a trailblazer without compromising on being a proud Arab and Muslim. She is now a member of the ruling council of the world athletics body and of the IOC. The first female Algerian champion, Hassiba Boulmerka, won 1500m gold in 1992, ignoring fundamentalists death threats.
Like Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar have also yet to send females to the Olympics, but despite all three violating the Olympic charter in 2008, the IOC did nothing – this despite having excluded Afghanistan from the 2000 Games because the Taliban discriminated against women.
Saudi, Qatar, and Brunei export oil and natural gas to the West. Afghanistan does not. Coincidence?
After the fall of the Taliban government, Afghanistan was readmitted, and sent a female judo player and sprinter to Athens.
There were already indications that Brunei and Qatar would bow to pressure and change their policy. Qatar has bid for the 2020 Olympics, which would be doomed if they continued to ignore the IOC charter.
There were no women at all at the inaugural 1896 Olympics, and only 35 in total over the next three Games. The 1912 London Olympics had 44 women, just 2.2% of the total, and there were no Olympic athletics until 1928. Even in 1992 (Barcelona) more than a fifth of the 169 competing nations were all-male. Yet by 2008 (Beijing), women comprised 42% of the total.
We hope Saudi will liberate women for this year's Olympics, but depth of opposition is remarkable even to those in our culture of a tolerant disposition.
Muhammad al-Munajid is a member of Saudi Arabia's hugely influential Supreme Council of Religious Scholars. He once worked at the Saudi Embassy in Washington until stripped of diplomatic credentials.
In a sports fatwah in 2005, he said football games "reveal nakedness", and that women must not exercise in public because they wear "tight fitting, short" clothing. He also stated that women were forbidden from Olympic participation. If they are to appear in London, it will require repeal of that.
Having blocked his country from sending women to Beijing, he said during those Games themselves that they were "Bikini Olympics", and called them "Satanic".
In a 2009 TV interview he opposed Saudi's few private and expensive women-only sports clubs, yet the Koran says nothing that bans women from sport.
However, Shari'a is against mice, and that includes Mickey Mouse, according to this radical cleric. He consequently issued a fatwah that declared all mice, including Mickey, to be "soldiers of Satan" who should be destroyed.
On turning his attention to women's sports clubs, he said: "It is best for a Muslim woman to stay at home . . . My advice to a man is not to allow his daughter, and a husband not to allow his wife or to allow his sister, to enter such a club."
That year, unlicensed swimming pools and running tracks for women were closed by his country's government. A women's right's pressure group responded with adverts: "Let them get fat."
Another council of scholars member, Sheikh Abdullah al-Maneea, lent weight to the argument that the excessive "movement and jumping" needed in football and basketball might cause girls to tear their hymens and lose their virginity.
And in response to a request that the government introduce sports in schools for girls, another council colleague, Sheikh Abdulkareem al-Khudair, stated that Islam does not permit such female sports activity, and said it would "lead to following in the footsteps of the devil".
Yet there are still women brave enough to love sport. Jeddah United, a women's football team which trains away from prying male eyes behind 16-foot high concrete walls, returned from an international tournament in Jordan to be headlined "Shameless Girls". It costs the club £1500 a month to rent the facility, with each team member paying £100 per month to train thrice a week.
We may indeed be about to celebrate a major step towards sports emancipation for women, but if not, then the IOC is overdue supporting its charter by ostracising defaulters on the human rights grounds that brought South Africa to its senses on apartheid. Would it work? Would they have the appetite?
South Africa loves sport, but there's less evidence of this in Saudi. And oil seems a more persuasive currency than the Republic's gold and diamonds.