Meet Sarah Attar
As the summer issue of Pepperdine Magazine went to press, we learned that Sarah Attar would be one of the first two women ever to compete for Saudi Arabia at the Olympics. Now home from London and back in Pepperdine classrooms, Attar shares her Olympic experience.
Below, Saudi Arabian and Graziadio School of Business and Management alumnus Ali Alireza shares his thoughts on this historic step for women in Saudi Arabia and offers his advice to Attar.
Pepperdine Magazine: What was the process like of being selected for the Olympics?
Sarah Attar: The International Olympic Committee informed the Saudi Arabian government that they needed to include women. They started looking for women who had some athletic background but since women in Saudi Arabia don’t really have any P.E. classes or ways of being involved sports they expanded the search for Saudi Arabian citizens that reside outside of the country to pull in all of their options. Basically by word of mouth they contacted me and then eventually asked me to compete.
Have you always been a runner?
Actually when I was younger I never really pictured myself as a runner. I’d played soccer since a young age, and then later got involved in volleyball. It wasn’t until a friend convinced me to go out for track sophomore year of high school that I started running. I then switched from soccer and volleyball to cross country and track.
I actually focus more on cross country, and the longer distance races. The 800m is definitely not my race. In the months leading up to the Olympics (before I had been notified to I was going) I was training for a marathon and completed one in the end of April. Running is such a beautiful thing to me; it’s time to be with my mind and with nature. It feels so free. It also has taught me intense dedication, passion, commitment to a team, and has given me a drive to always work hard.
How did you prepare—both for the games and the inevitable media interest?
Well as soon as it was confirmed that I would be competing, only a month and a half prior to the start of the Olympic games, I started working with a trainer and he had me doing more speed work training that would directly be beneficial to the 800m race. This was a challenge though because my body was still in condition to run marathons. Trying to take this endurance I built up and transform it into the speed was tough, our bodies just don’t work like that.
As for preparation for the media interest, there really wasn’t any. I think it actually surprised me how much attention it got—I mean I knew it was going to be big, but it still is never really something I could have anticipated.
How did you handle the attention—before, during, and right after?
The attention was a bit overwhelming, but I knew that it was a chance to get the message out, a chance to really explain the reasoning and the story. Afterwards basically every conversation I had with people dealt with the Olympics, but it just showed how supportive and curious people were.
When did it first hit you that you would be making history?
To be honest I am not even sure it has completely hit me yet. I know that probably seems crazy since I already went through the whole experience but it still even seems so crazy to me that I was given the opportunity to make an impact in history. We grow up hearing about all of these people who fought for rights, and made a difference, and we catch ourselves striving to make a difference. To be given that opportunity has just been absolutely unreal.
What does it mean to you—as a woman, as a Saudi Arabian, and as an American—to be one of the first two women ever to represent Saudi Arabia at the Olympics?
It is really an honor to have been chosen to represent Saudi Arabia in such a groundbreaking event. I really hope that I have been able to ignite some kind of fire that will drive these women and inspire them. One of the mottos of the 2012 Olympic games this year was, “Inspire a Generation,” and I couldn’t think of a more fitting phrase. It’s also interesting looking back in America’s history with women in sports. I actually just did a paper on this for my History class. Women had similar struggles in America that the women in Saudi Arabia are having right now. It just takes a few people to really get the ball rolling. There will be criticism but it’s important to focus on the greater good.
What are your hopes for how your experience might impact equality in Saudi Arabia?
This is a big step towards equality, and I know that it will just keep moving forward. I know that these things take time to fully progress and flourish but there has to be some spark that gets everyone inspired.
What memories stand out in your mind of that whirlwind experience on the world stage? Was there a moment that you will always cherish?
The whole experience was absolutely mind-blowing. Just simply walking around the Olympic Village or being on the same training track as all of the amazing athletes I have seen on TV is something I will never forget. Just even witnessing and being around their work ethic was incredible. It was amazing to be in one area with people from literally every country. That is unbelievable, and it’s a beautiful thing to see everyone come together. Also, just seeing how the crowd has such incredible support for all of the athletes was awesome; they truly pulled me around the track.
This is a long overdue recognition of women’s role in the development of Saudi Arabia, and also recognition of the need to encourage women’s greater participation in all aspects of Saudi society which includes athletic competition.
Saudi Arabia is often criticized, and I have to admit sometimes justifiably, for neglecting the growing role women play in the development of Saudi society beyond the traditional roles played by women in health, education, etc. Providing opportunities for women outside those traditional roles has not been deemed a necessity.
The presence of women on our Olympic team signifies a growing recognition on the country’s part of the right of women to access all opportunities available to the males in Saudi Arabia. We're a relatively small population of about 22 million people. As all growing nations do, we concentrate on growing our resources and production capabilities to grow our economy. We forget sometimes that the most important resource in any country is its people, and we need to invest in our people equally whether they are male or female.
Sarah is a celebrity in Saudi Arabia. Many young women will look at her as a role model and will want to follow in her footsteps to represent Saudi Arabia in international competition. I would advise her not to be surprised at the admiration she will receive and to take this opportunity of her celebrity to help guide, mentor, and encourage other aspiring Saudi female athletes to reach for their dreams.
As both an alumnus and Saudi Arabian citizen, I am proud of Sarah’s achievement of being on the first Saudi women’s Olympic team. She has broken a very important barrier to women’s’ advancement in Saudi Arabia and will hopefully make it that much easier for other Saudi ladies to follow in her footsteps. Of course, my pride is doubled by the fact that she is a Pepperdine Wave. This is a big feather in the University’s cap.
- Alireza is managing director of automotive distribution company Haji Husein Alireza & Co. Ltd. based in Saudi Arabia; he received his MBA from the Graziadio School of Business and Management. He sits on the Graziadio Board of Visitors.