It’s not often an athlete coming last in a preliminary heat will receive a standing ovation. But Saudi Arabia's Sarah Al-Attar competing at the 2012 London Games did. The reason why is what makes the Olympics so much more special than any sporting event.
Al-Attar won’t be a name familiar to many of us. The fact is, most of us watch the Olympics so we can see our favourite athletes competing on the world stage. This is the ultimate arena that athletes work their entire sporting lives to be a part of.
Rio will be 23 year-old Sarah Al-Attar’s second Olympics. The reason the crowds in London gave her a standing ovation was because Al-Attar was one of two female athletes representing Saudi Arabia. 2012 was the first time the deeply religious nation had allowed females to compete.
This year they will allow four female athletes to attend the Games. All because of the Wildcard system.
The Wildcard system allows countries to select athletes who haven’t attained the qualifying standards for an event to attend the Olympics. It allows for a greater diversity of countries to be represented at the Games.
For the four women representing Saudi Arabia at the Games it is hard enough to train, let alone achieve qualifying standards that enables one to become an Olympian. For starters there are no women’s sports clubs for competitive sports and women are not permitted to train alongside men. In fact when Saudi Arabia announced it was sending four women to the Olympics it had to make a separate announcement from the one they made about their male Olympians.
The Saudi Olympic Committee also announced it would monitor the four female Olympians participating at their events “to ensure that they follow Islamic principles… and adhered to Islamic regulations”. This amongst other things, means the women have to fully cover their bodies and hair.
It hasn’t been easy for Al-Attar to train in her home nation for the Olympics. To run in Jeddah, her father attempted to dress her up as a boy so she could run alongside him. But the disguise didn’t work and she was harassed by men in cars for having the audacity to run. In the few years since that incident Al-Attar says things have somewhat changed – now she and her sister run in Abayas (the full black Islamic covering women wear over their clothes) without much harassment.
Al-Attar isn’t the only one battling harsh conditions in order to train for her sport. Siri Budcharern Arun from Laos will compete in the 50m freestyle swimming, another beneficiary of the Wildcard system. Siri Arun trains in a rubbish strewn, outdoor 25m pool half the Olympic size.
She shares her training session with kids splashing about on one side, and swimming lessons taking place on the other. There are no lanes reserved for professional swimmers. No one is expecting Siri Arun to win, but that’s not the point. “We may not be a big country but I want the world to know that we do have swimmers,” she says.
One of the most memorable moments from the Sydney Olympics, aside from Cathy Freeman winning of course, was watching Eric Moussambani from the Equatorial Guinea in west Africa swim in the 100 metre freestyle event. You might not remember his name, but you may remember the man from Africa who everyone got behind so he could finish the race - which he barely did in a record-setting time to become the slowest ever swimmer to compete in an Olympic race. The reason the crowd got behind Moussambani had nothing to do with him winning and all to do with him competing. And that perhaps is what the Olympics should really be about.
There will be the athletes who have trained their whole life to win an Olympic medal, and we will watch to share in their glory. But it is worth seeking out these Wildcard Olympians who are competing for much more than a place on the podium.
Watching Al-Attar compete is enough to empower the women in Saudi Arabia (and the rest of the world). While Siri Arun is there carrying the pride of an impoverished nation on her shoulders. There are many athletes like these women who will create unique moments during the two weeks of the Games. They may not walk away with a medal, but their presence at the Games is a victory in itself.