This is my second post on my London2012 Inspired Take-Aways. 204 Nations were represented at the London2012 Olympics and a female was sent to compete for every country present. History in the making. In this post, I want to put the spotlight on 19-year old Sarah Attar and 16-year old Wojdan Shahrkhani representing Saudi Arabia!
Now I have read many reviews regarding their participation in the Olympics.Talk about pendulum swings! There have been reviews that have hailed a new day for women because Saudi Arabia “let “ two females enter the Olympics and on the other end of that “pendulum swing”, there have been reviews that totally refused to acknowledge the occasion claiming that it is a token meaningless gesture (quite a giggle really considering that just the act of commenting on the news in essence acknowledges the participation). In this post, I have chosen to focus on the person, or persons, in this case. In order to do that and to truly begin to appreciate the journey of these young ladies (teenagers), we need to add the context of their environment. Their country.
In Saudi Arabia women and girls are banned from practicing sports this includes in colleges and schools. Actually, there are many daily activities that are taken for granted in my world that are not permitted in Saudi Arabia. Many in Saudi Arabia considered the participation of Sarah and Wojdan as disrespectful to their country’s traditions and values and have rejected their participation in the event. In fact, what is perhaps not widely known is that with the new guidelines introduced by the IOC after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, if Saudi Arabian women were not allowed to participate in London2012, the country would have been prohibited from sending teams to future Games.
Whereas many Olympian athletes trained for years preparing for the event, Sarah and Wojdan were given only two weeks to prepare. In fact, the only thing they received from their country were uniforms emblazoned with the Saudi logo on the back and chest. Furthermore, Sarah has US citizenship and did her training in the USA .Wojdan on the other hand (as far as I understand) had never been outside her country or performed in front of a large crowd until the Olympics. Now that takes courage on any level.
Saudi Arabian Media Coverage
These young ladies have been subjected to less than complimentary personal attacks as a result of their participation. Their morals have been called into question; morals that have been called lose by many in Saudi Arabia. Most of the Saudi Arabian media outlets avoided covering the female athlete’s performance, choosing to focus on the Saudi equestrian show-jumping team, led by Prince Abdullah al Saud. The few media outlets that did cover them, like the Saudi Gazette, faced strong criticism.
So what does this mean to these young female athletes? Recognized as token gestures by some, hailed as a symbol of change by others.
Although the act of putting someone forward to represent an organization, or country, with little preparation for that person to succeed is known as tokenism, the person who has to “live” that label has to deal with the consequences and stigma of that label. For that very reason, I tend to cringe at the word knowing how much work and conflict that person has to overcome. Although there may be a short-lived feeling of elation for at least being counted, behind the scenes this person has to deal with the reality of not being accepted by the majority of their country or organization. They will have to confront a heighten level of resistance and conflict as they continue their often lonely rally for social change and acceptance. History has shown that change is a long journey that starts with a special person taking that first single step.
As I reflect, I ask the question. “How many leaders have the inner strength to take the first step in the name of change?” To take that first step, knowing that they will most likely lose the first “race”. Knowing that they will have to confront major conflict back in their organization or country. Knowing that they do not have the training or experience to win in the beginning of their journey but will take the first step alone, knowing it is the right thing to do if they are to change the culture and direction of their organization or country. Very few. Even though many know it is the right thing to do, the two questions that I often hear are 1) Who else has done this? 2) What are the numbers ie the value? The reality is that there are times when you cannot answer these questions; you just know it is the right thing to do. It takes a “token” ~ a pioneer, an inner strength to go forward.
Sarah Attar crossed the finish line almost a full lap behind her competitors. My heart swelled with the reaction of the crowd. They cheered her every step of the way. For Sarah and Wojdan, this was not a sport to win a medal, this was a sport where their presence signifies the beginning of a race. Their presence created a slight crack in an age-old system that one day will be eroded to embrace change for another time.
My thoughts are with them, as the lights of the Olympics will not burn for another four years and they are left to face their critics and the consequences of being present back in their homeland. Yes, I am definitely inspired by these young ladies.
Thanks for popping by to read my perspective. As always, would really like to hear yours.
- chaz2b: Saudi Arabian girl an unlikely Olympic hero | The Seattle Times (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Saudi female athletes: Heroes in London, ‘prostitutes of the Olympics’ at home (rt.com)
- Wojdan Shaherkani, first Saudi Arabian woman to compete in Olympics, loses in 82 seconds (washingtonpost.com)
- These Photos Are of the First Female, Saudi Arabian Olympians in History (theatlantic.com)