Sarah Attar became the first female track and field athlete to represent Saudi Arabia at an Olympics when she competed in the 800 metres heats on Wednesday.
The 19-year-old, who wore a white head cover, a long sleeved green top and black leggings and sported luminous green running spikes, received a generous ovation from a capacity-crowd at the Olympic stadium as she trailed in last of the eight runners.
“It’s an incredible experience,” Attar, who has dual United States citizenship and is a student at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles, told reporters.
Attar, who clocked two minutes 44.95 seconds – over 43 seconds behind heat winner Janeth Jepkosgei Busienei of Kenya, is the second Saudi woman to compete at the Games following judoka Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani.
The judoka was caught up in early controversy at the Games after the International Judo Federation banned her from wearing a headscarf. However, the decision was later overturned after crisis talks between Saudi Arabia and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The IOC had extended a special invitation to Shaherkani and Attar after it pressed Saudi Arabia to end its ban on female participation.
Some conservative Saudis had criticised their countrywomen’s participation in London after Saudi Arabia broke with its practice of sending male-only teams to the world’s biggest sports event.
However, Attar was able to compete on Wednesday and her run, however slow, marks the beginning of an interesting journey for Saudi Arabia’s aspiring female athletes.