Sarah Attar was born and raised in California, and she attends Pepperdine University, where she's on the cross country and track and field teams. But her father is Saudi Arabian, and she has dual citizenship, so she competed for the Saudis at the Olympics, qualifying under a clause that aims to expand participation. Attar, 19, is one of two women who competed in London for Saudi Arabia—the other, Wojdan Shaherkani, lost in in the first round of her judo competition last Friday—and they're the first women to represent Saudi Arabia at the Olympics, period, thanks to a nudge from the International Olympic Committee.
This is no small feat, given the second-class status women have in Saudi society. Take this passage from a New York Times story published last month:
Perhaps in anticipation of the scrutiny Attar will receive in her groundbreaking role as a Saudi Olympian, her family asked Pepperdine to remove photos of Attar and the names of her family members from her online biography. Some photos showed her competing for Pepperdine wearing a tank top, shorts and no head scarf. In Saudi Arabia, most women cover their heads and faces in public and wear a black cloak called an abaya.
In videos and photographs provided by the I.O.C. this week, Attar is wearing sweat pants and a long-sleeved shirt, and her hair is concealed.
"I don't know whether or not her family was told to make such a request," Roger Horne, a Pepperdine spokesman, said about the request to remove photos and information from the Web site. "And I didn't ask for the exact reasoning behind it."
No explanation is needed, really. To read this story from the AP is to understand this was one instance in which Attar's and Shaherkani's participation was paramount:
[Shaherkani]'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.
Attar, whose skills are better suited for greater distances, competed in the 800m today. She placed last in her qualifying heat, and her time (2:44.95) was more than 32 seconds behind that of her next-slowest competitor. She gets to go back to Pepperdine in the fall, where she'll get to wear what all the other women wear when women compete. But the world got to see her competing as a woman for the Saudi kingdom, and it got to read what she told reporters afterward, and long after everyone forgets exactly what Attar did in her race, that will be all that matters: "For women in Saudi Arabia, I think this can really spark something to get more involved in sports, to become more athletic."