Byline: Michael Butcher
FOR the first time in more than a century of history the Olympics will welcome a female athlete from a Gulf state.
Striking a blow for women is Fatema Abdulhameed of Bahrain who is to herald a revolution in world sport.
It may be more apt to describe her as a child liberator, however, since Fatema is only 12. In itself this is not as unusual as it sounds because she is taking part in the swimming. It was more than 20 years ago that the world got used to child prodigies in the pool - the youngest competitor in the Olympics was Liana Vicens from Puerto Rico who swam at the 1968 Games in Mexico City, aged 11- but even by those standards, Fatema is a ground-breaker.
Not that anyone is expecting miracles of the Bahraini girl. Fatema will take part in the 50 metres freestyle where it is not anticipated that she will progress beyond the heat stages.
The biggest splash will be felt outside the pool however.
At the tender age of 12, most children are getting used to secondary education and casting off the habits of junior school. To her credit, Fatema sounds as surprised as everyone else that she is to take part in the Olympics.
She admits she initially greeted the news of the trip to Australia with disbelief.
That does not mean she is blissfully unaware of the burden of history, however.
"I want to go well for the people in Bahrain and for more women to go to the Games," she said with aplomb.
Not content with creating history, Bahrain will repeat the feat just a few days later when another female, this time in track and field, also takes to the Olympic stage. Sprinter Mariam Al Hilli will find herself up against the likes of Marion Jones in the 100 metres, but she is approaching the task in suitably gung-ho spirit: "I'm really charged up," she said.
Jones is reported to be impressed but not overly concerned.
Arab countries have been targeted by international sports federations in the last few years. There is a vast untapped potential - the International Olympic Committee estimates as many as 500 million people - that federation leaders are keen to encourage to take up competitive sports, but already there are signs of just how vital a source of talent Islam and the Arab world can be.
It was in 1984 that Moroccan 400-metre hurdler, Nawal El Moutawakel, became the first woman from an Islamic nation to win a medal when she took gold and brought the whole population of Casablanca out onto the streets at 2am to celebrate. El Moutawakel now actively promotes the cause of women's sport for the IOC.
And at the Atlanta Games four years ago, Ghada Shouaa was crowned as Syria's first Olympic champion when she won the heptathlon.