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Scarf-wearing Sarah Attar represents hope for progress in Saudi Arabia

Sarah Attar running for Pepperdine

Sarah Attar running for Pepperdine

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Updated: September 10, 2012 1:49PM

LONDON — It started with her family asking Pepperdine University to remove photos of her wearing racing shorts, a tank top and no headscarf from its website.

It ended Wednesday with her giving a brief statement to the media and walking briskly away.

This is what Sarah Attar was up against as she became the first woman to compete in track and field for Saudi Arabia at an Olympics. The challenge wasn’t in finishing the prescribed 800 meters. That was the easy part, even though she ended up 43 seconds behind the winner of her heat and received a standing ovation from the crowd.

The challenge was in balancing the honor and responsibility of being a trailblazer with the practicality of answering to a country that places severe restrictions on women.

The other Saudi woman competing in these Games, a 16-year-old judo athlete, already had been referred to as an “Olympic prostitute’’ on a website at home.

So this is what Attar was up against. Two weeks before the Games started, Saudi Arabia had caved in to international pressure and announced it would allow women to participate. The kingdom is Muslim, and clerics there have been vehemently opposed to women playing sports. But the International Olympic Committee had threatened to ban all Saudi athletes if the country didn’t allow women to compete.

Saudi Arabia agreed to send the pair, but with one demand: They had to compete while wearing scarves. The IOC, which bans headwear, gave in. If that sounds less like progress and more like a tooth being pulled by a pair of rusty pliers, it’s because it is.

When Attar lined up for her heat Wednesday, she was wearing a white scarf over her head, a green top, black tights and a big smile. She looked almost shocked to be inside Olympic Stadium, which is understandable. She runs the 1,500 and 3,000 at Pepperdine and is not a star. But her father is from Saudi Arabia, and she has dual citizenship. If the Saudis wanted to dip a toe into the waters of the 21st century, they had to find female athletes. That’s not easy. There are 153 official sports clubs for men and boys in Saudi Arabia and none for women and girls.

In November 2011, cleric Dr. Mohammad al-’Arifi warned Prince Nawaf, the president of the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee, about women competing in the Games:

“Women practicing sports is fundamentally allowed but if this leads to mixing with men or revealing private parts or men watching her sometimes run, sometimes fall down, sometimes laugh and sometimes cry or quarrel with another female athlete … or mount a horse or practice gymnastics or wrestling or other sports while the cameras film and the [television] channels broadcast … then there can be no doubt that it is forbidden.’’

Given that, the sight of Attar crossing the finish line Wednesday was stirring.

“It’s really an incredible experience just to be here,’’ she told reporters after the race.

Did Saudi officials tell her not to talk with the media? I asked her that question, but she kept walking, eyes straight ahead. Surely she had seen the reception some Saudis had given judo athlete Wojdan Shaherkani days before. Attar’s family had asked Pepperdine to remove family members’ names from her online bio.

In a video interview with the IOC in mid-July, the 19-year-old art major said she hoped her presence in London would help women’s sports grow in Saudi Arabia.

“I definitely think that my participation in this Olympic Games can increase women’s participation in sports in general,’’ Attar said. “I can only hope for the best for them and that we can get some really good strides going for women in the Olympics and just in sports in general.

“To any women who want to participate, I say go for it and don’t let anyone hold you back. We all have the potential to get out there and get moving. So I just really think we should do the best we can.’’

Will Wednesday change anything? By her very presence here, it has to. Perhaps not in the big ways Western countries might hope, but at a level where more Saudi women might wonder, loudly, why they have been so severely restricted in sports.

Competitively, Attar didn’t belong here, but Saudi women do. When they get to train and compete for a chance to be in the Olympics, rather than be handpicked, then progress will be made. But you have to start somewhere with Saudi Arabia.

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