What Happens After Countries Finally Start Sending Women to the Olympics
Has growing female participation in the Olympics from countries like Saudi Arabia and Brunei had a meaningful impact at home, or it is just a gesture for a global audience?
Photo by Jack Gruber-USA TODAY Sports
Sarah Attar walked into London's Queen Elizabeth Olympic Stadium four years ago wearing a uniform that she and her mother put together a few weeks earlier. From her closet, Attar chose a green long-sleeve shirt, black pants, and a white hijab—the colors of Saudi Arabia's flag. The San Diego native, 19 years old at the time, was the first woman to run in the Olympics for Saudi Arabia, and the country did not have an official uniform for its female athletes.
As she crossed the finish line in last place, nearly 40 seconds slower than the winners of her 800-meter preliminary heat, eighty thousand people filling the stadium rose from their seats and gave her a standing ovation.
A hundred and twelve years after the IOC first allowed women to compete, London marked the first time that all 206 National Olympic Committees sent female athletes to the Games; the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Brunei Darussalam and Qatar were the final holdouts. To many observers, Attar and her fellow athletes' participation was a sign of progress for three countries that have not traditionally provided a way for women in sports, either because it was not a priority or because, as in Saudi Arabia, it was outright discouraged.
This goes against what the Olympic Movement purports to stand for. "The practice of sport is a human right," the Olympic Charter reads. "Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind." The charter also holds that one role of the IOC is to "act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement," and indeed the IOC had to pressure Saudi Arabia to allow women into the delegation, reportedly threatening to bar the men's team from competing in the 2012 Games if they did not.
Four years later, Attar, now 23, returned to represent Saudi Arabia at the Summer Games, along with three other women—sprinter Kariman Abuljadayel, judoka Wujud Fahmi, and fencer Lubna al-Omair—double the number who went to London. Female athletes from Qatar and Brunei also had a presence in Rio. But has the growing female participation in the Olympics from these countries had a meaningful impact at home, or it is just a gesture for a global audience?
In the days following the women's 800 meters preliminary round in 2012, sports sections of newspapers worldwide covered Attar's historic run. The image of her running in Olympic Stadium was, and still is, widely shared on social media.
"I knew it would be big and I knew there would be media attention, but there was no real way to anticipate how it would play out," Attar said.
"It was the wildest two laps I've ever run," she continued. "During the race I didn't realize it was a standing ovation. I felt the crowd, the energy in that race. It was motivating to feel that support."
It was a kind of support not easily found in Saudi Arabia, where Attar's father is from and where she holds dual citizenship. A year before she was invited to be a part of Saudi Arabia's first delegation of female Olympians, Attar was visiting family in Jeddah when she went to the beach for an early-morning run. (At the time, she was on the Pepperdine University cross-country team.) Attar dressed to look like a boy and her father followed closely in the car, but within a few minutes of the run, young men were yelling at her.
"What do you think you're you doing, you should not be here," they said. Her dad honked the horn until they left and Attar called off the run. It was not worth it, she said.
At the time, Saudi Arabia, whose government follows an ultra-conservative interpretation of Sharia law, had in place what Human Rights Watch called "an effective ban on women's participation in national competitive sports." Societal pressures prevented women from exercising in public, and the government shut down private women's gyms in 2009 and 2010. In a country that does not allow women to drive and requires a guardian's consent for them to work, sports were—and still are—seen as an immodest, unnecessary activity for women.
Leading up to London, conservative Saudis called Attar and her teammate Wojdan Shaherkani, who competed in judo, the "prostitutes of the Olympics." Attar's upbringing in the United States also garnered some criticism, but she feels that being raised to play sports gave her a platform to inspire change for women in Saudi Arabia.
"It all comes back to that Olympic Creed. The important thing is to take part," Attar said. "Participation transcends the criticism."
It is more difficult, however, to change deeply rooted cultural beliefs, although it does seem to slowly be happening. This year the Saudi Olympic team announcement was less controversial because it was expected, says Yasser Alamoodi, Public Relations Manager for the Saudi Arabia Olympic Committee.
"When Sarah participated in 2012 a lot of people thought it was a one-off thing," Alamoodi said. "This time, her participation comes with a huge government commitment to women's health and community health in general. Sports do get people excited about working out."
Until very recently, there had not been any significant investment in developing athletic programs for women, or even physical education classes for girls' schools (in Saudi Arabia, the educational system is segregated by gender). Not only has this meant a lack of homegrown athletes for the country in competition; it's had a devastating effect on women's health. According to the World Obesity Federation, 50 percent of women in Saudi Arabia are obese, compared to 30 percent of men.
In the run-up to the Rio Games, Saudi Arabia announced a new program meant to encourage women to exercise more, and appointed Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, a member of the royal family, to serve as Vice President for Women's Affairs of the General Sports Authority.
The initiative, part of a larger plan called Saudi Vision 2030, will work to improve health and fitness, and expedite the legal process for opening women's gyms again.
"The interest on the part of women and girls to compete in sport continues to grow," Princess Reema wrote in an email to VICE Sports. "Our goal is to make sure everyone leads happy, healthy and productive lives, and staying active and physically fit is a big part of reaching those goals."
Saudi Arabia has made "some progress in participating in sports for health, competition, and professional opportunities but serious barriers remain," Human Rights Watch noted in a new report released earlier this month. Discussions about women's athletics are still primarily framed in terms of health and fitness, not the benefits of competition, teamwork, and sportsmanship. The organization recommended that the government commit to physical education for girls in public schools and establish women's national sports federations for national and international competition.
For now, Saudi women are turning to more grassroots organizations like the running clubs that have grown in number and popularity around the country. There are four clubs in Jeddah now, the city where Sarah Attar was forced to stop her training run. The co-ed Jeddah Road Racers was established thirty years ago; its members consist mostly of expats, but there are some Saudi nationals. The group originally ran freely at private compounds, but more recently the group has moved races to remote and undisclosed locations in the desert so that women can run with or without an abaya or hijab (which many of the Western women prefer to do).
"The Saudi ladies, they want to run the same way you want to run," says Fabrice Laborie, a French expat living in Jeddah and the president of the Jeddah Road Racers. "The Jeddah Running Club managed to organize runs in a public place. The group started to grow around this possibility of getting together in public and running in the abaya."
Since Attar's participation in the Olympics, Laborie has seen more women starting to run recreationally and training for races. "That's when the idea that you could be Saudi and you could run started to evolve," he said.
The Jeddah Running Club, which was established three years ago, consists of nearly 100 male and female members today, and holds group runs in public three days a week. And now when Attar visits Jeddah, she runs wearing an abaya on a new paved walking path in the middle of the city without getting harassed.
The barriers to women's Olympic participation in countries aren't always so blatant as in Saudi Arabia. In the neighboring country of Qatar, which also had its first female Olympians in 2012, women's sports are thriving on a national level. There is a Women's Sports Committee dedicated to developing competitive sports, and their national women's teams regularly compete in soccer, volleyball, basketball, handball, shooting, athletics, and swimming at international and regional competition.
Yet Qatar's women's teams have not yet reached qualifying standards for the Olympics. Instead, the female Olympians, like Saudi Arabia's, reached the Games via the IOC's wild-card berths, a program to increase participation and sports development in less competitive countries.
"The historic moment being the first Qatari female to represent my country in the Olympics was really something big for me," Qatari swimmer Nada Arakji, 21, said in a video before the Rio Games. "I'm just really proud and happy. I encourage a lot of girls out there to not be afraid and to take risks, be confident and do what they love."
When Maziah Mahusin walked on to the track for her first 400-meter heat at the London Games, she was terrified—so terrified that she considered walking off. Everyone at home in Brunei Darussalam thought she would win the Olympics, and the pressure was almost too much.
With a population of just over 400,000, Brunei is a tiny country on the largest Asian island, Borneo, surrounded by the Malaysian border and the South China Sea. According to Mahusin, there is little sports culture in Brunei, for men or women, and that's why it took until 2012 for the country to develop a female Olympian. There are no government restrictions on women who want to participate in sports and the Islamic nation does not traditionally follow strict religious law. It is a personal matter for the woman to decide if she wants to cover up, Mahusin said.
The focus at school is on education, not sports; when kids do participate in sports, they are mostly indoors because they do not want to be under the sun (the average temperature is 81 degrees Fahrenheit). But Mahusin took to running naturally even if it was not common among her peers. A national team coach approached her when she was 14 after she won an 800-meter race at school. She was not interested in training, but she gave it a try and found that she loved the challenge.
In London, when Mahusin realized it was too late to turn back, she considered an intentional false start—anything to get out of the race, she thought. But when the starter said, "On your mark," she remembered her family and all the people who supported her.
"I cleared my mind and as soon as the gun shot, I knew—just run my heart out," Mahusin said. "After the finish I knew that I didn't win, but I ran the national record. That is a gold medal for me."
She says that she has noticed a surge in recreational runners since her appearance at the 2012 Olympics. The Brunei Darussalam National Olympic Council has started offering more financial support to its athletes, as well, handing out its first Olympic scholarships to two athletes before the London Games; three more athletes were awarded last year to help with training in preparation for the Rio Games, receiving US $1,000 per month from November 2015 to July 2016. But competitive sports are not the focus of the nation—education is most important. Swimmer Tiara Shahril Anwar, who was selected for the scholarship, withdrew from the development program to concentrate on school.
For the Rio Games, Brunei received three wild-card entries. Mahusin did not get one of them, but she continues to train with a goal of breaking the 100- and 200-meter national records. Instead, sprinter Maizurah Abdul Rahim made her Olympic debut in Rio, and ran a personal-best time in the 200 meters. She was the only woman on the team.
With the inclusion of women from all NOCs, the London Games was a step toward gender equality in the Olympics, but there is still work to be done. In 2012 women made up about 44 percent of competitors; female participation was expected to be 45 percent in Rio de Janeiro. The IOC says that it is committed to strategically working toward equal male and female participation by 2020.
If anything, the Games showcase diversity among nations around the world through participation. When the Egyptian women's beach volleyball team stepped to the sand for their first-round match against Germany in Rio de Janeiro, they became the first women to compete for their country in the sport. The International Volleyball Association lifted uniform regulations in 2012 to allow athletes from all cultural and religious beliefs to participate. This historic match quickly became an iconic image of the Rio Games: one team was fully covered, the other in bikinis. And while the moment marked progress for opening up sports to all people, it was also a reminder that true diversity in sport will be achieved when the difference is not noticed.
Four years after her Olympic debut for Saudi Arabia, Attar walked to the start line of the Olympic marathon wearing a high-performance uniform custom-designed for coverage and cooling by Oiselle, an American women's running apparel company. Her hair was tucked under a lightweight running cap. She was racing a distance she was more comfortable with (this was her tenth marathon), and was confident in her preparation, which included her move last year to Mammoth Lakes, California, to train at high altitude and work with renowned running coach Andrew Kastor.
"It was an honor to be able to run in another Olympics for Saudi Arabia," Attar said a few days after the women's marathon. She finished in 3:16:11, and was the second-to-last woman to cross the line (23 women dropped out). "I had a strong race overall, which is what we came to do. I know that I ran that race to the best of my abilities and did what I could on that day. It was incredible to see the outpouring of support from people across the globe."
Two days earlier, Attar watched her Saudi teammate, Kariman Abuljadayel, set a national record in the 100-meter prelims. Unlike the London Games, when Abuljadayel crossed the finish line most of the stands were empty. The press corps had mostly left, too.
Back in Saudi Arabia, in a quiet residential area of the capital city, Riyadh, a poster of Sarah Attar is pasted on an electric box next to a vacant dirt lot. Attar is running with an open stride and her arms in full swing. Her last name is printed in large capital letters on the race bib pinned to her chest. Covered in long sleeves, pants, and a white hijab, Attar looks ahead—her eyes focused in the distance.
"On the social media everyone was mad about how can a Muslim woman run in front of people," artist Shaweesh Bey said about the poster he created after the London Games. "So I did this as a support for Saudi females."
Four years later, most of the poster has begun to peel away, but Attar's image persists.
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