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The California Girl from Saudi Arabia

I am a huge fan of the Olympics, so I’ll be spending lots of time this summer rooting for Team USA, especially my fellow California girls Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor as they go for their third consecutive gold medal in Beach Volleyball. There is another California girl that I will be rooting for just as hard if not harder, and she won’t even compete for Team USA. Her name is Sarah Attar, and she’ll be running the 800 meter race for Saudi Arabia.

Sarah, who runs track at Pepperdine University and was raised in Escondido, California, will join Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani (who will compete in Judo) as the first women ever to represent Saudi Arabia at the Olympics. This is a landmark happening in religiously conservative Saudi Arabia, where women are strongly discouraged from playing sports and go to schools with no physical education or sports teams. Consequentially, they have no Mary Lou Retton, Dot Richardson, or Mia Hamm to look up to; no female sports stars to show them that girls can kick butt just like men. That might change this summer.

Sarah never would have received this opportunity if several human rights organizations hadn’t petitioned to have Saudi Arabia banned from the games if they didn’t also send female athletes. In June Saudi Arabia tried to throw water on this controversy by saying they would allow women to compete if they had any who were qualified, but that they didn’t have any able to meet Olympic qualifying times. Gee, I wonder why?

This week, Saudi Arabia finally agreed to send female representatives to the games under the Olympics’ “universality” clause. This clause allows athletes who are unable to meet the necessary qualifying times to compete anyway so long as their participation is important for reasons of equality. In 2000 a swimmer from Equatorial Guinea, Eric “the Eel” Moussambani, competed under this clause. He had never swam in an Olympic-sized pool until he arrived in Sydney for the Games. He was very outmatched in his race, and despite swimming the short 100 meter freestyle, he finished with a time that was twice as long as that of the winner.

Sarah is a much more accomplished runner than Eric “the Eel” was a swimmer, but like Eric she will face incredibly steep competition. To give you a frame of reference, the slowest qualifying time for Team USA’s 800m run was 1:59:46. Sarah’s best time running the 800 in competition (which happened when she was in high school) was 2:40. And while she can likely run the 800 faster now that she is in college (where she runs longer distances in competition), the Olympics are not going to be easy for Sarah. Not only will she have to face incredible competition, but she’ll have to do it while dealing with the intense scrutiny of being the first Saudi Arabian woman to run.

Good luck, Sarah! If you can hold your head up high, compete with dignity, and do your best, you will inspire millions of women, not just in Saudi Arabia, but all around the world.

Image Source: Daily Mail


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