Protests mar run-up to the opening ceremony but well-wishers at a Rio favela hope for a spectacular show.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Many things have changed for Sarah Attar since London 2012.
For starters, the 23-year-old pioneering Saudi Arabian runner with an infectious smile graduated from Pepperdine University, in California, and began training full-time as a long-distance runner.
Attar is now in Rio de Janeiro for her second Olympic experience, leading a team of four Saudi women who were given wildcard entries.
In London, Attar and judoka Wojdan Shaherkani were the first two Saudi women to participate in an Olympics – so simply appearing at the starting blocks of her 800-metre heat was enough to garner global attention.
But as a marathon runner, Attar had only a few months to prepare for the shorter distance and fell 32 seconds behind the pack, although she crossed the finish line to a standing ovation from 60,000 people.
Fast forward to this Sunday, and Attar will be racing in her 10th marathon, trying to break her best time of three hours and 11 minutes set in Chicago last October. Attar has been running up to 86 miles a week with a running club under the guidance of coach Andrew Kastor in Mammoth Lakes, California, where the 2,400-metre altitude provides an optimal training ground.
Although Attar’s family is based in California, where her father works as a civil engineer, representing Saudi Arabia at the Olympics has brought her much closer to her homeland, Attar told Al Jazeera.
“Representing your country in the Olympics will connect you to it tremendously, because you become a symbol for it on a global stage and you are proud to do that,” she said in an interview inside the lobby of a hotel crowded with international delegates, just a few steps from the Olympic Park.
Sitting beside her, Attar’s father described how he encouraged all three of his children to take up sports throughout their youth – especially football, as he is a licensed coach. But running is what Attar took to the most.
“I’m very proud of her,” said 57-year-old Jeddah native Amer Attar, who made the trip to Rio along with his wife and two other children. “She’s focused, and we’re here just to give her all the support she wants, to make it as comfortable as possible for her to pursue her passion.”
Attar’s goal-oriented determination has served as an inspiration for other Saudi women who want to take up running, many of whom have reached out to her with questions about how to get started. Attar has made contact with a running club in Riyadh, serving as a facilitator when called upon.
“It’s been very cool to put them in touch with people who have supported me,” she said.
One of the issues brought to her attention has given Attar an idea for a modesty-oriented athletic clothing line that would benefit her fellow nationals.
I've had the opportunity to connect with girls who run there daily and speak to them about what they would require to run more comfortably and more consistently, and that mainly comes down to attire.
“I’ve had the opportunity to connect with girls who run there daily and speak to them about what they would require to run more comfortably and more consistently, and that mainly comes down to attire,” she said. “So that’s something that’s been on my mind – how we can make that happen for women in Saudi Arabia.”
Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, who was recently appointed as the head of women’s affairs under Saudi’s General Sports Authority, applauded Attar’s mission.
“I think it’s really smart of her to have tapped into her celebrity to be able to do something that will benefit others,” Al Saud told Al Jazeera, adding that it is important to be “respectful of people who are slightly more conservative who want to exercise.”
Al Saud also encouraged Attar to act as a role model for the other three Saudi women at the Games: fencer Lubna al-Omair, sprinter Kariman Abuljadayel and judoka Joud Fahmy, who pulled out of her event because of an injury.
Once the wildcard slots were announced in early June, a team-building workshop was arranged in Riyadh, which Attar described as a “pretty intensive three days”.
“We really used her as an example to sit and talk to the other girls about her experience at the last Olympics,” Al Saud said. “I absolutely respect her professionalism.”
The workshop included sessions on media training, social media etiquette and engagement with other athletes at the Games.
“Sarah was very instrumental to impress upon them the seriousness of the situation,” Al Saud said. “Not only the fun side of it, but also having been there and done that, what does this really mean?”
Among the most important advice that Attar gave her team mates was how to deal with harsh criticism on social media – a forum that can be unnecessarily cruel to women from conservative countries who are taking steps into the public sphere.
“One of the biggest tips that I gave them was not to read anything, and just focus on what you’re doing and the positivity of it,” Attar said. “Don’t focus on what people are going to say, because there’s always going to be people who are not happy when you’re doing something that’s changing things.”
Meanwhile, Attar has set yet another goal for herself: to hit the Olympic qualifying time of two hours and 45 minutes before Tokyo 2020, which would make her the first Saudi female to compete outside of a wildcard invitation.
“I truly believe that she’s going to be an athlete that represents us for the long term,” Al Saud said.