London2012 Inspired Take-Aways #2 Change Happens When You Take The First Step

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.

Wojdan Shahrkhani

Sarah Attar

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.


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About Shirley Williams

I have a passion to create, resolve and build.I have had a pretty dynamic career that some say has led to a solid reputation as a visionary, result-driven and passionate leader. I say, simplify the complexity, work WITH people and you have a formula that not only deliver results but forms bonds that will stand the test of time. I have led numerous initiatives with a geographical scope that has included Canada, US, The South Americas,Europe and Australia. My professional career spans Biotechnology, Brand & Generic Pharmaceuticals, IBM Business Consulting Services, Healthcare, Retail, Electronics, more recently Mining and now Social Media. I am a biochemist and have a Master of Scence degree in endocrine pharmacology. I am a certified practitioner and professional in Change Management (Prosci), Project Management (PMP/PMI) and Social Media (OMCP, Online Marketing Certified Professional). So that makes my full title to be: Shirley Williams, MSc. PMP. CMC. OCMP. Having spent many years in the LifeSciences (you can check my career profile on Linkedin ) I have now directed my attention to bridging strategy and goals with social media. Loving it! In fact I am passionate about it. I have also produced and currently host my own internet radio show. My programs to-date have included Rise Of The Patient and Give Startups A Chance. I consider myself as an Experience Enabler. I facilitate and advocate for improved experience from the consumer perspective. Thank you for stopping by to check me out!

4 Responses to “London2012 Inspired Take-Aways #2 Change Happens When You Take The First Step”

  1. Shirley,
    As usual your deep and compassionate understanding and sharing has left me more educated and inspired. Your story caused me develop a deeper insight, and in fact reminded me of the challenge many face as they live their dreams. Each of us who dares to challenge the status quo, experiences in some degree the ignorance and sometimes the wrath of those who think, act, and promote intolerance. My hope is that those who read your article can be moved toward greater understanding and tolerance of others. In that regard, your insight can become a catalyst that educates, inspires, and brings peace to people, a peace that the world must move toward if we are to survive. THANKS again for being you!

    • Henry,
      I read your feedback and I am moved to know that my message(s) is resonating and getting through. I cannot ask for more. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and provide feedback. I do believe change starts with a single step. What I did not say, it happens one person at a time. Hence the power of one.
      As always, thank you for your insight.


  2. This is really an amazing post. My heart goes out to these young girls- In America we have things so easy and I love my country. Some times it’s easy to forget the great pains that other women endure. I am so proud of these women and their courage it’s truly inspiring. I’m going to find the video thank you for this 🙂

    • Lisa
      Thank you for visiting and giving feedback. So appreciated.
      I was so inspired by these young ladies (16 and 19-years old!) who dared to step forward under such conflicting conditions. I was very proud of the crowd that cheered them on and at the same time I knew that their journey has just begun.
      I think their act is a really good reminder how far we have come as women and not to take it all for granted. Where ever we can exercise our rights we should- many women fought very hard so that we can.

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