Saudi female runner breaks barriers in Rio marathon

Rio de Janeiro: Pioneer Saudi sportswoman Sarah al-Attar has already raced at the Olympics, but now her campaign will become a marathon as she uses the Rio Games to break down barriers in the conservative kingdom.

Attar turned heads in the head-to-toe outfit she patched together with her mother to race in the 800 metres at the 2012 London Games, where she was one of the first Saudi women Olympians.

This time Attar, now 23, will take on the gruelling 42 kilometer (26 mile) marathon race in Rio, where four Saudi women will take part.

The women and seven Saudi men arrived in Rio on Monday, but were kept away from prying media.

Gender divisions are so sensitive that the Saudi Olympic Committee website did not name the women who will represent the country.

Along with Attar, they are judoka Wujud Fahmi, fencer Lubna al-Omair and 100m runner Cariman Abu al-Jadail.

None qualified directly for their competition, but will take part with special invitations from the International Olympic Committee.

Attar has no regrets and no doubts about running in London and Rio.

“I was going for the women in Saudi Arabia, for all the young girls to have someone in the Olympics representing them, giving them a picture of something they could one day strive for,” she said in a recent article for the Like The Wind runners’ magazine.

Attar finished last in her 800 metres heat in London, more than half a minute behind her nearest rival. She still got a standing ovation when she crossed the line.

The Californian with Saudi-US nationality has never run under three hours in four attempts on the Boston marathon, but can no doubt expect a similar acclaim in Rio.

Taking part in sport is not easy for Saudi women and finding women to go to the London Olympics was a challenge. Someone knew of the half-Saudi girl in California who liked running and so an invitation was made.

“My mom and I pieced together an outfit: a long-sleeve shirt, full-length running tights, and a head cover we found online,” Attar told Marie-Claire magazine.

“I was proud to wear the uniform and liked that wearing the appropriate dress connected me to Saudi girls who want to run and have to be covered while they do it.”

Since London, Attar has become a sponsored athlete training with elite women runners in Mammoth Lakes, California.

Attar and her family have also noticed change in Saudi Arabia since the London Games.
Her father, Amer Attar, told the Washington Post how on a 2011 visit, when his daughter wanted to go on a run, he gave her a boyish “cap and warmup pants” and drove beside her.

Last year, he saw men and women running together in Jeddah.

“I even saw a guy with his, I think, looked like his wife, and they were holding hands and running together. And she was wearing the abaya, and she was covered up, but they were actually running.”

Still, the IOC has rejected a suggestion by a Saudi Arabian official the conservative kingdom could jointly host the Olympics with neighbouring Bahrain, holding men’s and women’s events in separate states.

President Thomas Bach said “a commitment to ‘non-discrimination’ will be mandatory for all countries hoping to bid for the Olympics in the future”.