Olympics 2012: Sarah Attar is first Saudi woman on track

Last-place finish in 800-meter heat doesn’t bother 19-year-old

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That world seemed far away Wednesday at 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium in London, where the sun was shining and the temperature approached 70 degrees under a clear, blue sky.

Attar wore a long-sleeved green jacket, full-length black running pants and a white hood. When she was introduced, the crowd responded with a hearty roar. Attar appeared to be taken aback and responded with a wave, a wide smile and a bit of a chuckle.

Although she is just one part of a much bigger story about politics, sports and women, she is also having fun.

“She’s a kid,” said Joaquim Cruz, the 1984 Olympic champion at 800 meters who agreed to coach Attar when he heard her story. “She’s 19 years old, and this is like going to Disneyland for the first time. Everybody else is concerned about the press, the media, what people are going to say. She’s just taking a ride.”

Attar, who has spent little time in Saudi Arabia, trains as a long-distance runner, but because she’s not among the world’s elite, the decision was made to have her run in the shorter event.

Defending champion Pamela Jelimo of Kenya was pleased to see Attar in the race.

“Athletics is something that is like any other profession, and if we have a talent, we should promote it. It’s part of freedom,” Jelimo said. “If we have a talent, why should we hide it?”

U.S. runner Alice Schmidt, who is also coached by Cruz, said, “She carried the weight of Saudi Arabia’s women on her shoulders.”

Against some of the fastest runners in the world, Attar lined up in Lane 8 and lagged behind immediately, trailing the rest of the pack by 5, then 10, then 20 feet and more.

It didn’t really matter. As the next-to-last racer crossed the finish line, the stadium announcer let everyone know where their attention needed to be, intoning, “And 150 meters to go for Sarah Attar.”

As she ran along, swinging her arms and breathing heavily, fans clapped in appreciation and support, and hundreds rose to give her a standing ovation as she approached the finish line.

“To see how the crowd reacted to her when she was running was very touching and very exciting,” Attar’s father, Amer, told the AP.

After the race, as the noise abated, Attar simply walked alone toward the tunnel leading athletes away from the track, catching her breath.

She scurried through the area where reporters gather to interview competitors, politely declining to answer questions. Later, in a quiet moment, she put things in perspective — the crowd, the cheering, the occasion.

“I mean, seeing the support like that, it’s just an amazing experience,” she said. “I was so excited to be a part of it. I really hope this can be the start of something amazing.”

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