- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 8, 2012

LONDON (AP) — Sarah Attar finished last and more than a half-minute slower than her nearest competitor in the women’s 800 meters, yet hundreds rose to give her a standing ovation as she crossed the finish line.

For the first woman from Saudi Arabia to compete in track and field at the Olympics, the principle was more important than the performance Wednesday.

Covered in clothing from head to toe, except for her smiling face poking out from her hood, Attar made her debut five days after a Saudi judo athlete became the ultraconservative country’s first female competitor at any Olympics.

“This is such a huge honor and an amazing experience, just to be representing the women,” Attar said in an interview with the Associated Press. “I know that this can make a huge difference.”

The 19-year-old Attar ran 800 meters in 2 minutes, 44.95 seconds. To her, the time wasn’t the point.

Her mother is American and her father is Saudi. She has dual citizenship, was born in California and runs track at Pepperdine University near Los Angeles.

Attar wanted to represent Saudi Arabia at the Olympics as a way of inspiring women.

“For women in Saudi Arabia, I think this can really spark something to get more involved in sports, to become more athletic,” she said. “Maybe in the next Olympics we can have a very strong team to come.”

This year, under pressure from the International Olympic Committee, Saudi Arabia broke its practice of fielding male-only teams by entering Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani in judo and Attar in track and field.

Saudi Arabia is one of three Islamic countries, along with Qatar and Brunei, that brought female athletes for the first time, making this the first Olympics in which every national team includes a woman.

Shahrkhani’s appearance at the London Games in a loss Friday raised the scorn of the kingdom’s Islamic clerics, who said she dishonored herself by fighting in front of men, including the male referee and judges.

In Saudi Arabia, women are monitored by the kingdom’s religious police, who enforce a rigid interpretation of Islamic Shariah law on the streets and in public places such as shopping malls and college campuses.

Women in the kingdom are not allowed to travel abroad without permission from a male guardian. Only last year they were told they would be allowed to vote — but not before 2015 — and while no laws prohibit them from driving cars, officials comply with religious edicts that have banned it.

Ahmed al-Marzooqi, an editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based online sports site shesport.com, said that because Attar lives in the United States, many people in Saudi Arabia don’t consider her Saudi. Still, to al-Marzooqi, it doesn’t diminish the moment.

“I think her run will support our cause here,” he said. “They showed to all people and religious authority in Saudi that women in sports do not clash with Islamic tradition and Saudi society.”

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.”

Because she’s on a college track team, Attar knows all about this year’s 40th anniversary of Title IX, the barrier-breaking law that opened doors in sports for women in the United States. For the first time this year, women outnumbered men on the U.S. Olympic team.

Nobody is dreaming about making that kind of history yet in Saudi Arabia.

Every grand mission, however, has to start somewhere.

“She’s a dream come true for a lot of female athletes who dream about coming here and didn’t have that opportunity,” said Cruz, her coach. “She’s also a dream for a lot of generations to come. They can dream about that now, where they couldn’t dream about it before.”

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