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“I’m an Olympic Underdog”

Sarah Attar on becoming the first woman to compete for Saudi Arabia at the Olympic Games

It was one of the standout moments of the London 2012 Olympics. As Sarah Attar rounded the last stretch of the 800m race, more than 30 seconds behind her closest competitor, the crowd rose to its feet and the stadium erupted into deafening applause.

Although Attar finished dead last she received the kind of reception usually reserved for gold medal winners. Why? Because the 19-year-old athlete, who ran wearing full-length running tights, a lime-green long-sleeved top and a headscarf, was the first woman to compete for Saudi Arabia at an Olympic Games.

This year Attar is once again preparing for the Olympics where she hopes to compete on behalf of Saudi Arabia – and women everywhere.

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In an interview with marie claire US magazine, she said that she’s only now beginning to comprehend the enormity of what occurred in London.

“More and more, I am realising my place in history. There is a whole generation of girls in Saudi Arabia who now have a female Olympic role model to look up to—that didn’t exist before. They’ll grow up knowing that competing in the Olympics is a possibility, and that’s what means the most to me.” 

“More and more, I am realising my place in history”

Sarah Attar, Saudi athlete

Before 2012, Saudi women were not allowed to join the Olympic team. However, one month before the 2012 Olympics, the Saudi government announced it would lift the ban after pressure from the International Olympic Committee.

However, because Saudi girls are prohibited from playing sport in public schools, there was a limited pool of potential Olympians.

That’s how Attar, who has dual US and Saudi Arabian citizenship and was a junior runner for Pepperdine University at the time, was invited to join the Olympic team. She and judo fighter Wojdan Shaherkan became the first and only women to join the team.

Attar told marie claire that when she received the invitation “I knew I wasn’t qualified to race alongside the best runners in the world, but I also knew the enormity of what was happening— that I would be one of the first female athletes to compete for Saudi Arabia. It seemed crazy to pass up such an amazing opportunity.”

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