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Published on Aug 8, 2012
LONDON — Sarah Attar finished last and more than a half-minute slower than her nearest competitor in the women's 800 meters. Yet hundreds rose to give her a standing ovation as she crossed the finish line. The 19-year-old Attar ran 800 meters in 2 minutes, 44.95 seconds. To her, the time wasn't the point.
For the first woman from Saudi Arabia to compete in track and field at the Olympics, the principle was more important than the performance Wednesday.
Sarah Attar, 19, said it was a "huge step forward" for her to take part in the Games and expressed hopes that it would make a difference.
Wearing a white hood, a long-sleeved green top and black leggings, she received a standing ovation from spectators in the Olympics Stadium despite finishing eighth, more than 30 seconds behind the seventh-placed runner.
Attar, who has dual Saudi and US citizenship, said after the race: "It is the hugest honour to be here to represent the women of Saudi Arabia. "It is an historic moment. I hope it will make a difference. It is a huge step forward. It's a really incredible experience." Her father Amer added: "To see how the crowd reacted to her when she was running was very touching and very exciting."
She was only the second Saudi woman to compete in an Olympics after judo fighter Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani, 16, who was eliminated after losing her first bout last week.
The International Olympic Committee invited Attar and Shaherkani to take part in London 2012 after putting pressure on conservative Saudi Arabia to end its practice of sending men-only teams to the Games.
Attar was born in California to an American mother and a Saudi father. She has spent little time in Saudi Arabia, and is currently a student at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles.
She is normally a long-distance runner but because she does not have elite status, it was decided that she should compete in the 800m.
Her coach, Joaquim Cruz, the Brazilian winner of the 800m at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, said: "She was thrown into the fire with the change of events. It's like me switching to the marathon all of the sudden, then trying to compete in the Olympics."
Attar wanted to represent Saudi Arabia at the Olympics as a way of inspiring women.
"For women in Saudi Arabia, I think this can really spark something to get more involved in sports, to become more athletic," she said. "Maybe in the next Olympics, we can have a very strong team to come."
This year, under pressure from the International Olympic Committee, Saudi Arabia broke its practice of fielding male-only teams by entering Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani in judo and Attar in track and field.
Saudi Arabia is one of three Islamic countries, along with Qatar and Brunei, that brought female athletes for the first time, making this the first Olympics in which every national team includes a woman.