The International Olympic Committee announced this week that Saudi Arabia, a Muslim monarchy that places heavy restrictions on women in daily life, would have women on its Olympic team for the first time at the London Games. The athletes are Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, who competes in judo, and Sarah Attar, a 19-year-old junior at Pepperdine University and a graduate of Escondido High School in California.
Attar, who trains in San Diego, has dual citizenship because her father is Saudi Arabian. She will compete in the 800 meters in London, although at Pepperdine she has primarily run longer events, including the 1,500 meters and the 3,000.
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.”
Horne said the Attar family also asked that all news media inquiries be referred to the I.O.C. A spokesman for the I.O.C. did not respond to requests for comment.
As a sophomore at Pepperdine, Attar ran the 1,500 meters in 5 minutes 30.51 seconds and the 3,000 in 11:37.41. While those times are below Olympic qualifying standards, Attar will compete under a clause that permits some athletes below the standards to compete with the aim of broadening Olympic participation.
For years, human rights groups have pressured international sports officials to have Saudi Arabia include women on its Olympic team.
Allowing women to compete under the Saudi flag “is a step forward in a long marathon,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives for Human Rights Watch.
“But if you disallow sports in schools for girls at a formative period where they can sort out where their talents lie, you’re stripping from millions of girls the ability to compete at any level, including the backyard level.”
“A big inspiration for participating in the 2012 Olympics for me is being one of the first women for Saudi Arabia to be going,” Attar said in a video interview posted online by the I.O.C. “It’s such a huge honor and I hope that it can really make some good strides for women over there to get more involved in the sport.
“I definitely think that my participation in this Olympic Games can increase women’s participation in sports in general. I can only hope for the best for them and that we can really get some good strides going for women in the Olympics further and just in sports in general.”