There was a standing ovation at London’s Olympic stadium on Wednesday night. But it wasn’t for one of England’s own countrymen or women. And it wasn’t for the guy who broke his pole while vaulting.
It wasn’t even for the woman who won heat 6 of the 800-metre event. It was actually for the woman who finished last in that same race – and she finished 45 seconds after the winner crossed the line.
Sarah Attar was the first woman from Saudi Arabia to ever compete in a track event at the Olympics. In fact, London is the first Olympics in which Saudi Arabia has allowed women athletes to compete at all. Last night the 19-year-old – who was born and raised in California but has dual nationality because of her Saudi father - competed in the 800 metre race wearing a white hijab with long running pants and long-sleeved top.
They’re calling Sarah the ‘Eric the Eel’ of the London Games because the beauty of her race had nothing to do with her speed and everything to do with what she represents.
Here’s an interview Sarah recorded in the months before her race.
And Sarah isn’t the only Saudi Arabian woman at the Games this year. Last week, Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahkrhani competed in the Olympic judo competition.
It’s a great achievement for the women of Saudi Arabia. A huge step forward.
The is the first Olympic games in history where every country has had both male and female athletes competing.
But while the Western World is celebrating, let’s remember that neither of these female Saudi athletes are legally allowed to drive in the country they’re representing. They’re also not allowed to travel abroad without permission from a male guardian. Women have recently been told they’ve been given the right to vote – but not until 2015.
And according to media outlets, both women were forced to walk behind the male Saudi athletes during the opening ceremony as “a symbol of an ultra-conservative country in which women are actively discouraged from participating in sport”.
This from the Washington Post:
“The participation of Saudi judo player Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani had raised the scorn of the kingdom’s ultraconservative Islamic clerics, who said she was dishonoring herself by fighting in front of men, including the male referee and judges. And the match Friday was a swift defeat for Shahrkhani: The teenager was thrown by her Puerto Rican opponent in just over a minute.”
We can only imagine the bravery that it took these two young women to push through the harsh restrictions of their home country’s laws – the restrictions that tell them that they are not ‘full people’. As spectators we got to watch them at the pinnacle of their achievement but let’s not forget what they would have gone through to get there.
Saudi Arabia continues to take ever so tiny and slow steps towards modern standards of gender equality. But let’s stay ever mindful of the fact there is a long long way to go.