The slowest runner in the last women’s 800-meter heat brought the Olympic crowd to its feet Wednesday morning for a sustained ovation. As Sarah Attar sprinted toward the finish nearly 45 seconds behind the winner, the cheers were recognition for the first Saudi Arabian woman to run track at the Games.
“It’s really an incredible experience just to be here,” Attar said moments later as she rushed through the postrace media interview area. Wearing a white hijab head covering, a plain long-sleeved green T-shirt and black leggings, Attar kept moving through the area, looking straight ahead. Asked if she had been told by Saudi officials not to speak with the media, Attar did not respond.
For female athletes from countries that strictly follow Islamic law, progress is slow, complicated, and, it seems, carefully managed. Olympians like Attar simultaneously offer hope of social change through sports and highlight the great distance left to cover in women’s rights.
This year, for the first time in Olympic history, every national delegation sent female athletes to compete, including previous holdouts Qatar, Brunei, and Saudi Arabia.
The three Muslim countries were the only national delegations without women entered in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Many of the female representatives from Arab nations come from countries with religious and cultural restrictions placed on women that discourage or outright ban sports participation. While female athletes from those nations have found cheering crowds and international attention in London, they often face criticism at home for having athletic ambitions and train under difficult conditions.
By competing on the world’s biggest sports stage, female Olympians from across the Arab world hope to open minds and inspire girls and women back home.