Saudi runner breaks gender barriers in Rio marathon

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Sarah Attar.

Pioneer Saudi sportswoman Sarah Attar has already raced at the Olympics, but now her campaign will become a marathon as she uses the Rio Games to break down barriers in the conservative kingdom.

Attar turned heads in the head-to-toe outfit she patched together with her mother to race in the 800 metres at the 2012 London Games, where she was one of the first Saudi women Olympians.

This time Attar, now 23, will take on the gruelling 42 kilometer (26 mile) marathon race in Rio, where four Saudi women will take part.

The women and seven Saudi men arrived in Rio on Monday, but were kept away from prying media.

Gender divisions are so sensitive that the Saudi Olympic Committee website did not name the women who will represent the country.

Along with Attar, they are judoka Wujud Fahmi, fencer Lubna al-Omair and 100m runner Cariman Abu al-Jadail.

None qualified directly for their competition, but will take part with special invitations from the International Olympic Committee.

Attar has no regrets and no doubts about running in London and Rio.

“I was going for the women in Saudi Arabia, for all the young girls to have someone in the Olympics representing them, giving them a picture of something they could one day strive for,” she said in a recent article for the Like The Wind runners’ magazine.

Attar finished last in her 800 metres heat in London, more than half a minute behind her nearest rival. She still got a standing ovation when she crossed the line.

The Californian with Saudi-US nationality has never run under three hours in four attempts on the Boston marathon, but can no doubt expect a similar acclaim in Rio.

Taking part in sport is not easy for Saudi women and finding women to go to the London Olympics was a challenge. Someone knew of the half-Saudi girl in California who liked running and so an invitation was made.

“My mom and I pieced together an outfit: a long-sleeve shirt, full-length running tights, and a head cover we found online,” Attar told Marie-Claire magazine.

“I was proud to wear the uniform and liked that wearing the appropriate dress connected me to Saudi girls who want to run and have to be covered while they do it.”

Since London, Attar has become a sponsored athlete training with elite women runners in Mammoth Lakes, California.

Attar and her family have also noticed change in Saudi Arabia since the London Games.

Her father, Amer Attar, told the Washington Post how on a 2011 visit, when his daughter wanted to go on a run, he gave her a boyish “cap and warm-up pants” and drove beside her.

Last year, he saw men and women running together in Jeddah.

“I even saw a guy with his, I think, looked like his wife, and they were holding hands and running together. And she was wearing the abaya, and she was covered up, but they were actually running.”

Still, the IOC has rejected a suggestion by a Saudi Arabian official the conservative kingdom could jointly host the Olympics with neighbouring Bahrain, holding men’s and women’s events in separate states.

President Thomas Bach said “a commitment to ‘non-discrimination’ will be mandatory for all countries hoping to bid for the Olympics in the future”.

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Ten of the most memorable Olympic moments

niall 2/08/2016
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James Bond villain.

Ahead of the Rio Olympics which get under way on Friday, here’s a look at ten memorable moments from the Olympic games.

Do you agree with our selections?

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1. Tug-of-war, hot air ballooning, powerboating, rope climbing, tandem cycling and solo synchronised swimming all used to be Olympic sports at one stage – some not so long ago. So too was live pigeon shooting at the 1900 Games in Paris, which turned into a bit of a feathery bloodbath with over 300 unfortunate animals meeting an untimely end. It was soon decided that clay targets may be a friendlier option.

2. It took excruciating pain for Japan’s men’s team to win their fifth consecutive gymnastics team gold in 1976. Shun Fujimoto managed to break his kneecap with an awkward fall in his floor routine but did not want anyone to know about the injury – or to let his team down.

He bravely soldiered on, scoring 9.5 on the pommel horse and 9.7 on the rings before having to pull out of the competition. It was enough to help his team to the gold – by less than half a point.

That was the year 14-year-old Romanian Nadia Comaneci scored her seven perfect 10s in gymnastics, however, so Fujimoto’s heroics went largely unnoticed.

3. There are always plenty of clichés bandied about when it comes to sport – “fighting for his life”… “it’s a do-or-die” moment in the match.

But for one Olympic gold medallist, this would have been more meaningful than the rest. Tennis star R Norris Williams survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, although he lost his father in the tragedy.

Doctors threatened to amputate his legs after they were severely damaged from being in the freezing cold water for hours, but Williams refused and went on to win the US Open doubles title later that year – and a gold medal in the mixed doubles at the 1924 Olympics in Paris.

R Norris Williams.

R Norris Williams.

4. Rowing has provided some rather bizarre Olympic moments over the years – from rowers dropping their medals in the lake by mistake to stopping early because they thought they’d reached the finish line.

But the one that takes the cake is Australian Bobby Pearce, who in 1928 stopped mid-race in the heats of the single sculls to allow a duck and her ducklings to cross in front of him before continuing the race.

The duck family would have been happy to note that Pearce went on to win the gold medal in the final.

5. George Eyser left the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis with six medals – which would be an amazing feat in itself, without mentioning the fact that he achieved it with one wooden leg. Eyser lost his leg in a train accident but that didn’t stop him from competing. He won three golds – in the parallel bars, long horse vault and rope climbing, silver in the pommel horse and the combined competition and bronze on the horizontal bar.

104 years later, South African swimmer Natalie du Toit would become the next amputee to compete at the Olympics. She competed without her prosthetic though – in open water swimming.

George Eyser.

George Eyser.

6. Zimbabwe were the unlikely recipients of the gold medal the first time women’s field hockey was contested at the Olympic Games in 1980. Thanks to the US-led boycott of the Games, Russia weren’t left with much in the way of competition so they invited nations who hadn’t originally qualified – the newly independent nation of Zimbabwe being one of them.

Having endured a gruelling journey in a plane usually used to transport meat, the Zimbabweans arrived in Moscow via Lusaka and Bucharest and swept the competition aside to claim the gold. It would be 24 years before Kirsty Coventry won the nation’s next gold medal – in the 200m backstroke.

Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe.

7. It’s hard to believe such a basic error could have occurred as recently as 2000, but several highly fancied gymnasts in the women’s gymnastics competition completely botched their attempts at the vault. Some of them inexplicably fell on their faces when they expected to be producing gold-medal winning vaults until it was discovered that the vault horse had been set 5cm too low.

Red-faced Sydney organisers apologised profusely and the first and second-rotation gymnasts were allowed to take those vaults again.

GettyImages-1560718

08 You could say Charlotte “Lottie” Dod was a bit of an all-rounder. Not only did the Englishwoman claim the silver medal in archery at the 1908 Games in London, but she also had five Wimbledon singles titles to her name and remains the youngest ever winner of the singles title – coming at the age of just 15.

Dod also captained the England women’s hockey team and if that wasn’t enough also won the British Ladies Golf Championship at Troon in 1904.

Charlotte “Lottie” Dod.

Charlotte “Lottie” Dod.

9 Despite breaking an Olympic weightlifting record, it wasn’t America gold medallist Stanley Stanczyk who proved to be the most memorable after the 1948 Games but rather the silver medallist, Harold Sakata.

Twenty years after his podium performance in London, the Japanese-American athlete became better known as the Bond villain, Oddjob, in the film Goldfinger.

James Bond villain.

10 If you thought Bert le Clos was an overenthusiastic supporter of his gold medal-winning son, Jean Boiteaux can top that for sure.

After holding off a strong challenge from American Ford Konno the French swimmer, whose mother had also represented France in the Olympic pool, emerged as the surprise winner of the 400m freestyle in 1952. The crowd and gathered media became rather confused when a beret-clad old man jumped into the pool fully clothed in celebration.

It turned out to be Boiteaux’s jubilant father and the swimmer was lucky to escape disqualification.

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