BRUSSELS (AP) – As many female athletes as men will be competing in the Olympic Games within a decade, IOC president Jacques Rogge predicted yesterday. «The prediction we have now for Athens is that we will already have 44 percent women’s participation,» Rogge told a Belgian Senate committee in highlighting the increasing number of female athletes at the Games. Women accounted for 21 percent at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and 38.2 percent at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. «Within a decade, there will be 50 percent women participating at the Olympics,» he told the lawmakers. «At that stage, we have to start preoccupying ourselves with the place of men in the Olympics,» he quipped. Rogge added that the flagbearer for Afghanistan during the opening ceremony of the Athens Olympics this summer will be female. Only four years ago, Afghanistan was banned from the Sydney Games because the Taliban regime outlawed women from competing in sports. Also, the number of nations without any female competitors is declining, he said. Eight years ago in Atlanta, there were 26 all-male delegations, followed by only nine in Sydney. Now Rogge expects that number to be «no more than four or five» in Athens. Statistically, Afghanistan is a stunning turnaround. After the Taliban was ousted by a US-led coalition in 2001, it made a gradual return to the world of sports, highlighted by sending Lima Azimi to run the 100 meters in the athletics world championships in Paris last August. Wearing long baggy pants and unsure how to use the starting blocks, Azimi finished last, but she made a point for her country, where many women still wear chador or burqua coverings. Now, three of the 10 competitors in the Afghan team will be women, all runners. While Rogge highlighted continuing problems for women to compete in sports in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, Rogge lauded progress made in Arab nations like Qatar and Kuwait. «We make progress step by step,» he said. Even though political and religious factors often capture the headlines, Rogge insisted the lack of economic development most often stood in the way of more emancipation. «In most nations, it is a problem of development. Women have to stay at home to raise kids and make sure they have an education. It is the only way to develop a family,» he said. Even though the Modern Olympics started in 1896, women were not allowed to compete until 1912. Even that was a giant step forward from antiquity and the original Olympics. «The Greeks were particularly misogynous. They banned women from even watching the Olympics. Every woman caught in the stadiums was immediately beheaded,» he said. Presumably because of the total nudity of the competitors, he added.