Saudi Athletes in London
SUSTG Analysis | Lucien Zeigler | 8.10.12
London 2012 was historic for both Saudi Arabia and the Olympic games. Saudi Arabia sent its first female athletes ever to the Olympics, completing a strong talking point for the games’ organizers: London 2012 was the first time every country competing in the Olympics sent at least one woman.
Sarah Attar (800m) and Wojdan Shahrkhani (Judo) represented Saudi Arabia, and although neither experienced victory, spectators in London gave both a thunderous applause in recognition of their accomplishments. After her race was completed, Attar told the AP that her participation in the games was “such a huge honor and an amazing experience, just to be representing the women…I know that this can make a huge difference.”
Although many in the West applauded Attar and Shahrkhani, public opinion in Saudi Arabia was reported in one outlet as split, and the two athletes received a number of threats. While total acceptance of Saudi women athletes in Saudi Arabia is not yet in place, most in the Saudi media applauded the moment. Writing in the Saudi Gazette, Hussein Shobokshi, in a fantastic op-ed entitled “The Wojdan Moment,” noted that he was “cautiously optimistic that this episode…was good for the country:”
“In all honesty, it seemed that Wojdan’s battle would not be against her opponent on the Judo mat in the tournament she was scheduled to compete in, but against the ignorant and the prejudiced back home. And there are plenty of those.
“This was a historical moment for Saudi sports buffs; it could be equated with the “Jackie Robinson moment”, which refers to the first African-American player to compete in major league baseball. It was eerily familiar, how hate groups started attacking her with venom, criticizing her “bad behavior” and asking how dare she insult the country! Mind you, she was always dressed in her hijab and accompanied by her legal guardian: her father. Yet there was the urge and the need to attack her to completely discredit her.
“That ugly and pathetic episode showed the amount of racism and discrimination that still exist in Saudi society today, a problem that unfortunately has not been properly confronted or tackled until slowly it has become an apparent “caste system” that allows racism to be almost institutionalized without objection. Sad!”
As Mr. Shobokshi noted, historically the faces of social change are often vilified or worse by contemporary foes, but often celebrated by all when the change has become accepted. Saudi Arabia has time to train more women athletes to potentially compete in Rio de Janero, Brazil in 2016.
For their part, the International Olympic Committee is still undergoing progressive change, too. Former Olympic hurdles champion Nawal El Moutawakel of Morocco was recently elected Vice President of the IOC, the first woman from a predominantly Muslim nation to hold such a senior position.
There was another bright spot for Saudi Arabia at the Olympics. Saudi Arabia’s success in show jumping, an individual bronze won by the Saudi team and the advancement of all three riders to the individual round, “has shifted equestrian’s order, and could help keep the sport in the Olympics,” the Associated Press reported.
Kamal Bahamadan told the AP that “the horse has always been a big and important part of our culture…You see it in paintings, in art and poetry. We grew up with horses all around us.”