Equity & Diversity

Saudi Arabian Pepperdine Student to Make Olympic History

By Kimberly Shannon — July 24, 2012 3 min read
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The 2012 Summer Olympics will go down in history as the first-ever Olympic Games to include female athletes from every country. After Qatar, in February, and Brunei, in March, added women to their rosters, Saudi Arabia was left as the last country to make the call, and they chose two women: Sarah Attar for the 800-meter track and field race, and Wojdan Shahrkhani for judo.

Neither woman, however, lives in the Saudi kingdom, reports AllMediaNY.com. In fact, with a Saudi father and an American mother, the 19-year-old Attar has dual citizenship in the United States. Currently an arts student at Pepperdine University, Attar graduated from Escondido High School in California in 2010, where she was a member of the National Honors Society. She now runs track and field in college and has twice been on the West Coast Conference’s athletic honor roll.

Attar was chosen to compete under the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) “universality clause” that allows a country to specially invite an athlete who did not meet the qualifying times to compete if it is deemed important for reasons of equality, the Wall Street Journal reports. Although Attar used to run the 800-meter in high school, she typically runs the 1,500 and the 3,000 at college. Her best time in high school for the 800 was 2:40, which is almost 40 seconds slower than the Olympic qualifying time, according to UT San Diego, and her times this season for the 1,500 and the 3,000 (5:30.51 and 11:37.41) are not typical of Olympic runners.

Nonetheless, Attar said she is honored to be chosen, reports the New York Times. “A big inspiration for participating in the Olympic Games is being one of the first women for Saudi Arabia to be going,” she says. “It’s such a huge honor, and I hope that it can really make some big strides for women over there to get more involved in sport.”

In Saudi Arabia, girls are typically forbidden from playing sports in school, although Saudi government officials have reportedly told Human Rights Watch that they are evaluating this policy. Additionally, some schools have caused quite a discussion by allowing girls to participate in sports despite the ban. Even as they get older, exercise is usually only done in elite, private, women-only “health clubs,” according to Gulf News, so Saudi Arabia only had a small pool of female athletes to choose from.

The Human Rights Watch had been campaigning for months not to let Saudi Arabia play in the 2012 Games if it didn’t include women on its roster. In April, the Associated Press reports, the head of the Saudi Olympic Committee was quoted saying that he did not approve of including female athletes, and even suggested that they play under a neutral flag.

The allowance of female athletes is not without strict rules, however. The IOC said that Saudi women must cover up in loose-fitting attire and a head-scarf at all times, including during competition, and must be accompanied by a guardian. The IOC also requested that Pepperdine take down Attar’s pictures from its website, which portrayed her wearing shorts, and added a video of her on the IOC’s website in which Attar is practicing in more traditional Saudi attire. There has been no news coverage in Saudi Arabia of the female Olympians, according to the Associated Press.

One question that this situation brings up is whether or not this is a meaningful step forward for Saudi Arabia. Ahmed al-Marzooqi, editor of a Saudi sports website, says that this move is just an attempt to quiet the public while still maintaining an overwhelmingly male team of athletes, and that this alone will not change anything for women in Saudi Arabia. Others, such as Minky Worden of the Human Rights Watch, see it as a small step in a long battle to come.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.