From a 2015 Boston Marathon banner high above Boylston Street, Sarah Attar smiles upon shoppers and tourists. The image taken during last year’s race caught the attention of John Hancock executives. They thought Attar looked confident and joyful, and appeared the perfect picture of inspiration for the company’s banners. They couldn’t have been more right.
Just ask young girls in Saudi Arabia.
At the 2012 London Games, Attar made history as part of Saudi Arabia’s first delegation of female Olympic athletes. Wearing a white hijab head covering, a long-sleeved green top, and black leggings, Attar competed in the 800 meters on a hot August morning. She finished last in her preliminary heat, but she sent a message about the importance of women’s participation in sports and received a standing ovation.
On Patriots Day, Attar, 22, will be back on the Boston Marathon course for the third time, hoping for a personal best and wearing a modest running outfit.
As the daughter of an American mother and Saudi Arabian father, she embraces her family’s culture and regularly visits relatives in the Middle East. So, while a banner on Boylston Street is special, she wants to reach beyond the finish line to as many future female Saudi Arabian Olympians as possible. She was thrilled when two young Saudi women recognized her at last year’s Boston Marathon expo and excitedly rushed over to talk with her.
Sometimes signs of progress appear in unexpected places.
“More and more, I recognize my place in history and see that I can continue to be a powerful representation of something I believe in,” said Attar, who grew up in southern California. “Women should be able to do sports. It’s about sports being a positive in your life.”
That is the story behind the smile on the banner. Attar is, at once, a representation of every runner in the Boston Marathon and a reminder of how sports can open doors to new experiences. For anyone who participates. For a California girl plucked from athletic anonymity and placed on the Olympic stage. For girls and women in a country such as Saudi Arabia.
It’s fitting that Attar now runs marathons because they prize participation, the attempt at something that seems nearly impossible to so many. There is value in making it to the start. That will be as true Monday morning in Hopkinton as it was in London nearly three years ago.
For Attar, the London Olympics were a whirlwind, a lesson in Saudi politics, and a taste of international sports fame. Attar heard she might represent Saudi Arabia six weeks before the Games started. At the time, she was an average Pepperdine University distance runner who had raced the 800 once in high school, an art major with aspirations of a career in photography. Also, she was fresh off her first marathon.
It’s hard to imagine less ideal Olympic preparation, especially for an athlete who would generate intense media interest. But breakthroughs in women’s sports often require that athletes seize opportunities, not wait for perfect openings. As Attar said, “I knew running in London would be meaningful, but I didn’t know how meaningful. There was no way to know what would happen with my participation.”
Initially, Attar faced criticism in Saudi Arabia, including a Twitter hashtag that labeled her and fellow female Saudi Olympian Wojdan Shaherkani as “Prostitutes of the Olympics.” That kind of reaction doesn’t shock. In a country governed by Islamic law, Saudi women cannot drive, and require permission from a male guardian to work, travel, study, marry, and access certain medical care. They enjoy precious few opportunities to practice and compete in sports. The oil-rich kingdom sent female athletes to London only after intense pressure from the International Olympic Committee.
At the Games, the Saudi Olympic Committee didn’t have a women’s track uniform for Attar that met the country’s modest dress standards. Instead, the night before the 800, she stitched together a suitable outfit from athletic clothes she had brought.
That was August 2012 in London. Fast forward to February 2014 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
‘More and more, I recognize my place in history and see that I can continue to be a powerful representation of something I believe in. Women should be able to do sports.’Sarah Attar
While visiting family in Jeddah, Attar spoke at the girls’ school her cousins attend. She asked an auditorium packed with 700 students ages 13 to 18, “Who hopes to compete in the Olympics someday?” Every girl raised her hand. Later, the girls asked for Attar’s autograph. She couldn’t believe the enthusiasm for sports at the school, the legacy of her Olympic run long after London headlines faded.
Again, sometimes signs of progress appear in unexpected places.
“This generation of younger girls grows up with competing in the Olympics as a tangible possibility,” said Attar. “They’ve had someone do it. So, they can say, ‘Oh, I want to do that and I’m going to train to do that.’ Before, it wasn’t something they were aware they could do. It was inspiring to see all these girls with big dreams. That I had some part in inspiring them blows my mind.”
If asked to represent Saudi Arabia in the 2016 Rio Games, Attar would be honored to compete again. She is training hard, doing all she can to prepare for the possibility of an Olympic encore. That includes running the Boston Marathon on Monday. If she goes to Rio, Attar would like to race in the marathon, a distance that suits her much better than the 800.
But whether she runs the 800 or marathon or nothing at all in the 2016 Summer Games, Attar hopes Saudi Arabia sends a delegation of female athletes to Rio. “It would be very powerful if they send women again,” she said. After all, participation is progress only if it leads to continued participation.
The more schoolgirls in Jeddah see female Olympians from their country, the more their world expands.
Maybe then the long run toward wider acceptance of women’s sports participation in Saudi Arabia, a distance measured in years not miles, becomes shorter.Fair Play is a regular column that explores the challenges girls and women face in today’s sports world, as well as their athletic accomplishments. Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ShiraSpringer.