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Saudi female athletes: Heroes in London, 'prostitutes of the Olympics' at home

Published time: August 12, 2012 18:18
Edited time: August 13, 2012 15:10
Saudi Arabia's Wojdan Shaherkani (R) and Sarah Attar (AFP Photo)

Saudi Arabia's Wojdan Shaherkani (R) and Sarah Attar (AFP Photo)

Sarah, 19, and Wojdan, 16, are the first Saudi Arabian sportswomen to take part in the Olympic Games. But while they received standing ovations in London, they were hit with criticism and hatred at home.

­Saudi-American track athlete Sarah Attar trained for the games in the US, but chose to compete for Saudi Arabia.

She crossed the finish line almost a full lap behind her competitors – but that didn’t stop the crowd from cheering her on every step of the way.

Saudi Arabian athlete Wojdan Shaherkhani also failed to win a medal for her country, after losing a judo match to her Puerto Rican opponent. The competition lasted only 82 seconds.

However, Attar and Shaherkhani’s mere participation is seen as a huge victory because it was the first time Saudi Arabia sent female athletes to the Olympic Games.

The move is seen as a milestone toward meeting the International Olympics Committee’s (IOC) goal of sex equality and 50/50 participation at the Games.

But many in Saudi Arabia have rejected Attar and Shaherkhani’s participation in the event.

Millions of women and girls are banned from practicing sports in Saudi Arabia – even in the country’s colleges and schools.

When the IOC announced that the country would be sending two female athletes to the Games, the news was met with mixed reactions and comments on social networking sites.

While some viewed the announcement as a step toward equal rights for women in the Arab state, others considered their participation to be disrespectful to the country’s traditions.

One Twitter user responded by creating a hashtag which read “Prostitutes of the Olympics.” The creator was then severely criticized by other users.

The father of Wojdan Shaherkhani contacted the country's interior minister to demand action against those who insulted his daughter.

Saudi Arabian media outlets tended to shy away from covering the female athletes’ performances.

Most newspapers chose to focus their attention solely on the bronze-winning Saudi equestrian show-jumping team, led by Prince Abdullah al Saud.

The Saudi Gazette faced strong criticism after becoming the only newspaper to provide full coverage of the sportswomen’s achievements.

The Saudi Olympic Committee, pushed by IOC regulations, overturned the ban on women athletes in June – just weeks before the Olympic opening ceremony in London.

The decision was met with opposition throughout the country.

If Saudi Arabian women were not allowed to participate in the London Games, the country would have been prohibited from sending teams to future Games, according to restrictions introduced by the IOC after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

It was a Catch 22 situation for Attar and Shaherkhani, who faced more challenges than their counterparts.

The athletes were given only two weeks to prepare for the Games, and did not receive proper training. The only thing they received were uniforms emblazoned with the Saudi logo on the back and chest.

Despite negative reactions, Attar and Shaherkhani hope their participation can pave the way for other female athletes in Saudi Arabia, as well as Qatar and Brunei – which also sent female participants to the Games for the first time.

“It is such an honor to be representing Saudi Arabia. Hopefully this can make such a huge difference,” Attar told reporters after the competition.

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