Saudi ready to go the distance, in marathon

Sarah al-Attar ran the 800m at the 2012 Games but will take on the marathon in Rio.
Sarah al-Attar ran the 800m at the 2012 Games but will take on the marathon in Rio.PHOTO: REUTERS

RIO DE JANEIRO • Pioneer Saudi sportswoman Sarah al-Attar has already raced at the Olympics, but now her campaign will become a marathon as she uses the Rio Games to break down barriers in the conservative kingdom.

Attar turned heads in the head-to-toe outfit she patched together with her mother to race in the 800m at the 2012 London Games, where she was one of the first Saudi women to become an Olympian.

This time Attar, now 23, will take on the gruelling 42.2km marathon in Rio, while a total of four Saudi women will take part in the Games.

The women and seven Saudi men arrived in Rio on Monday, but were kept away from prying media.

Gender divisions are so sensitive that the Saudi Olympic Committee website did not name the women who will represent the country.

Along with Attar, they are judoka Wujud Fahmi, fencer Lubna al-Omair and 100m runner Cariman Abu al-Jadail.

None qualified directly, but will take part with special invitations from the International Olympic Committee.

Attar has no regrets and no doubts about running in London and Rio.

"I was going for the women in Saudi Arabia, for all the young girls to have someone in the Olympics representing them, giving them a picture of something they could one day strive for," she said recently.

Attar finished last in her 800m heat in London, more than half a minute behind her nearest rival, but still got a standing ovation when she crossed the line.

The Californian with Saudi-US nationality has never run under three hours in four attempts at the Boston Marathon, but can no doubt expect similar acclaim in Rio.

Since London, Attar has become a sponsored athlete training with elite women runners in Mammoth Lakes, California.

She and her family have also noticed change in Saudi Arabia since the London Games.

Her father, Amer Attar, told the Washington Post how on a 2011 visit, when his daughter wanted to go on a run, he gave her a boyish "cap and warm-up pants" and drove beside her.

Last year, he saw men and women running together in Jeddah.

"I even saw a guy with his, I think, looked like his wife, and they were holding hands and running together. And she was wearing the abaya (cloak) and she was covered up, but they were actually running."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 03, 2016, with the headline 'Saudi ready to go the distance, in marathon'. Print Edition | Subscribe