Escondido High School and Pepperdine University 800-meter sensation Sarah Attar is going back to the Olympics.
A trailblazer, Attar might have finished last in her 2012 Summer Games prelininary heat, but she leads the way in bringing a modicum of women’s equality to one of the last bastions of feudal male society — Saudi Arabia.
Attar, 23, was born in the U.S.A.but her father, Amer Attar was Saudi born and raised giving her the ability to run for the Saudi family’s Arabia. Amer Attar went to a U.S. college, married Judy, an American in 1984, then coached his two duaghters and one son.
Attar finished dead last in her preliminary heat, dressed in a uniform that required covered hair, long sleeves and pants consistent with female Islamic dress codes, but the crowds rose to a standing ovation for her efforts. The San Diego native with dual American and Saudi Arabian citizenship made history that day as part of Saudi Arabia’s first female delegation of Olympic athletes.
Attar’s 800 time in London – 2 minutes, 44.95 seconds while wearing a white head covering, long-sleeved green shirt and full-length black tights – was less important than the timing. Saudi Arabia had never sent female athletes to an Olympics, and Attar and judo’s Wojdan Shahrkhani became the first under pressure from the IOC
With Saudi Arabia and Qatar among the last countries to add female athletes to their Olympics contingents, Sarah Attar and Wojdan Shaherkani, a judoka, broke the ground and ignored the odd social-media denigration as best they could. In turn, on repeated visits to Saudi Arabia, the Attar family has noticed some rumblings of change in that most conservative of Middle Eastern lands.
On a visit in 2011, as they tell it, Sarah wished to go for a run, so Amer helped her dress as if she were male and took her to a coastal road along the Jeddah Corniche. “She wore a cap and warmup pants and a long-sleeved shirt, and I said, ‘Just start running. I’ll drive next to you, and if you get harassed or something, we’ll do something,’ ” he said. “So she started running, and then, like, five minutes, 10 minutes . . .”
“It was literally, like, five minutes into the run,” Sarah said. “A car full of 20-something-year-old guys pulls up next to me and starts yelling at me. They were saying, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ You know, stuff like that. So then we were kind of done after that.”
By December 2015, though, Sarah and her sister ran in abayas, with Amer driving along again, when a police officer arrived — but only to ensure Amer wasn’t harassing the women. Moreover, the family relished Jeddah’s new walking paths. “And you’d never [see that before]. There was no place to do stuff like that,” Amer said, his eyes alive as he described “couples” and “women in their abayas.”
He said: “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.”
Attar has discovered another fresh wrinkle: a group called the Saudi Running Collective. A founder, an expatriate named Rod, said it has 120 active members, 80 percent Saudi, with about eight Saudi females. Significantly, men and women (in abayas) run together. Rod, who spoke by telephone, asked that his last name not be published because of the unusual nature of the club in Saudi culture.
Attar has since graduated from Pepperdine, moved to Mammoth Lakes and signed an endorsement deal with Oiselle, a running apparel company that promotes female athletes. She now trains for long distances in the high altitude of the mountains and has run the Boston Marathon four times, including last April, although it was unclear what event she’ll race in Rio.
Track and field’s world governing body has qualifying standards for each event, but it allows wild-card entries for countries without any athletes who have met them.
The other women named to the team, all Olympic newbies, are Cariman Abu Al-Jadail (100 meters), Lubna Al-Omair (fencing) and Wujud Fahmi (judo). Saudi Arabia will send seven male athletes to Rio.
A top official from Saudi Arabia’s Olympic committee told Reuters that the announcement of the men’s and women’s teams was made separately due to the country’s sensitivities toward gender segregation.
Q & A With Sarah Attar
What difference do you think your Olympic appearance made?
Just visiting Saudi Arabia recently and talking to girls there, they tell me how much I inspire them. So, even if it’s still just steps toward getting more women’s gyms or running events or anything like that to evolve—that there are now girls who dream of competing in the Olympics is pretty amazing.
What was it like racing with the wardrobe requirements specified by Saudi Arabia?
My mom and I put together that outfit, and the main thing that was different was the full headpiece. I don’t typically train in a hijab, but it honestly wasn’t a big deal to me going into the stadium racing. It was like wearing any uniform you would wear as part of a team. So that’s just how I see it.
How was the race received in Saudi Arabia?
It was televised, but some stations didn’t show it, which speaks to how it was controversial. Some people weren’t happy that I was running in the Olympics and representing Saudi Arabia, but overall it was received pretty well and over time became more accepted.
What distances did you typically run in college?
I did cross country mainly, which is usually 6K. Then my sophomore year, which was the year prior to the Olympics, I trained for the Big Sur Marathon that April. So I didn’t really do track very much. I did a couple races, but it was the 3,000, and I’d only raced the 800 once in high school.
So, why run the 800m at the Olympics?
Just my speculation on it, but it was selected more to get me in the stadium and have the experience with the crowd. I still wouldn’t have qualified at longer distances, so I think the 800 saved me from being lapped a bunch like in the 10,000.
Along the Boston Marathon route this year your photo is featured on one of the banners, how did that come about?
Honestly, I have no idea how it came about. I got an email saying I was a finalist for one of the banners and thought it was the coolest thing ever. We were saying if I wasn’t racing Boston this year we’d still have to fly out just to see all the banners around the city. So it’s a good thing I ran.
What’s your favorite run?
I do love Big Sur. I mean that’s what initially drew me there, the landscape. I’ve also always been very visual and I studied art so I’ve always been inspired by nature and that’s just fed my running.
Why do you run?
It allows me to connect with people and have opportunities I never would have imagined for myself. It pushes us past what we think we’re capable of.
Will you run in the 2016 Olympics?
In my opinion, [Saudi Arabia] should have women representing them, obviously. And if I was invited again, it would be awesome to do.