Pepperdine junior Sarah Attar, 19, will become just the second woman ever to represent Saudi Arabia at the Olympics next week.
By Jordan Littman / Special to The Malibu Times
Pepperdine junior long-distance track runner Sarah Attar is on the verge of making history.
The Escondido native will be making her Olympic debut over the next week, however she will not be representing her home nation.
Attar will be one of the first women ever to represent Saudi Arabia in the Olympics, competing under a clause that allows under-represented nations to elect athletes without Olympic standard times to compete.
“She was so excited,” Pepperdine Track coach Robert Radnoti said. “She came up to me in the spring and said this opportunity might arise, and we talked about what events she would do and stuff like that. But I just remember she was extremely excited.”
A 19-year-old born and raised in Southern California, Attar is one of the first two women athletes to compete under the Saudi flag. Though she has little direct connection to the Islamic nation, her father was born in Saudi Arabia. Attar therefore had dual citizenship in the two nations.
Saudi Arabia was one of the only countries that had not sent women to compete at the Olympics. But after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other human rights organizations pressured the kingdom to send women athletes to the 2012 Games, the country’s Olympic committee decided to elect Attar and judoist Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani to its roster.
The news was seen as transcending athletics, as women in Saudi Arabia enjoy far fewer rights than men.
Women in Saudi Arabia are banned from driving, and cannot vote or hold public office, although that will change in 2015. Without the permission of a male guardian, usually a father or husband, Saudi Arabian women also may not leave the country, go to school or open bank accounts. Women have also traditionally been banned from participating in athletics due to competing in front of a mixed-gender crowd.
“It is a human right—women have the right to practice sport and they want to practice, they love sport, they are attracted to sport,” IOC president Jacques Rogge said in a video statement. “We must make sure that barriers are broken down.”
Intertwined with the pressures of being one of the first Saudi women to ever compete in the Olympics is the person behind the story. According to Radnoti, Attar is an art major who happens to have a loving and caring personality and is at peace with life and what she’s doing.
She also lists her favorite hobbies on the Pepperdine athletics website as yoga, hiking and stargazing, and lists TV shows such as “Phineas and Ferb” and “Man vs. Food” as her favorites.
“Sarah is one of those typical art major girls,” Radnoti said. “Nothing really rattles her and she’s always really creative at what she does.”
Attar’s Olympic test, however, will be unique. She will be racing in the 800-meter dash, an event she has not competed in since high school. In her recent seasons at Pepperdine, Attar has been running in cross country and long-distance track events. She even has competed in a marathon.
Despite that, Radnoti said that her speed is still there, but as of recently, it has just been applied to maintaining it at longer distances.
“This is really all about the experience for her,” Radnoti said. “I don’t expect her to medal but the experience of competing in the Olympics will be something she will remember for the rest of her life.”
While her personal best 2:40 in the 800-meter is over 40 seconds off of the Olympic “A” standard, it that does not mean that Attar’s Olympic appearance will be meaningless.
Attar hopes that her historic appearance will set precedence for the Saudi kingdom for years to come.
“To any women who want to participate I say go for it and don’t let anyone hold you back,” Attar said in an IOC press release. “We all have the potential to get out there and get moving so I just really think we should do the best we can.”