According to her profile on the Pepperdine athletics website, Sarah Attar enjoys watching CSI: NY, Phineas and Ferb and Man vs. Food. Her favorite bands are Death Cab for Cutie, Snow Patrol and Iron and Wine. Her favorite foods are mangoes, blueberries, muffins, pasta and cereal, and her hobbies include art, yoga, hiking, stargazing and exploring.
Halfway through her collegiate track and field career, the 19-year-old born and raised in SoCal will compete for Saudi Arabia, accompanied by a male guardian, forbidden from interacting with men, and mandated by the Saudi government to “dress modestly.”
Attar, who is eligible to compete for Saudi Arabia because her father was born there, is one of the first two Saudi Arabian women to ever compete in the Olympics. Judo competitor Wodjan Shaherkhani, born in Mecca, is the other. In the first Olympics since the Arab Spring began two years ago, Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are all sending women for the first time. A female athlete will represent each of the 204 countries in the Olympics for the first time in the history of the competition. (In fact, not every country is sending a man. Bhutan is sending two participants, both of whom are women.)
It’s just one Olympic first. The U.S. will have more women than men competing in the Games for the first time ever. Two hundred sixty-eight women make up the U.S. contingent in London, more than half of the country’s 529 athletes — the largest delegation at the Games. It’s a testament to how far Title IX has taken us that the news isn’t more notable than it already is. Sending an equal number of men and women is unprecedented, but hardly a huge turning point.
Instead, the turning point of the London Olympics is how the rest of the world has caught up.
The world has come a long way since the 1896, the first and only Olympics in modern history in which women were not allowed to compete. The percentage of female athletes has risen steadily since then, boosted particularly by Title IX’s enactment in 1972, after which the percentage of women competing shot up 39 percent. Nowadays that percentage approaches 50.
But while the spirit of Title IX has taken root in most of the Western world, the mentality of equality is only starting to take over other countries around the world. Saudi Arabia had to be bullied into allowing women to compete by Qatar and Brunei, two countries which are also sending female athletes for the first time. Qatar shooter Bahiya al Hamad, one of four Qatari women in the Games, was the country’s flag-bearer at Friday’s opening ceremonies. Bahrain’s 14-athlete contingent at the Games includes eight women.
Attar and Shaherkhani will spend the Olympics required to “be accompanied by a male guardian and not mix with men,” as mandated by the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee. Attar, who wore normal track apparel at Pepperdine — shorts and a T-shirt, is required to wear clothing that complies with Islamic law. Shaherkhani is in danger of not being allowed to compete, as the hijab she is required to wear has been deemed unsuitable for competition by the president of the International Judo Federation. The situation is still playing out.
These hijinks are all evidence change moves as fast as the slowest person in the room — Saudi Arabia, in this case. While the fruits of Title IX are borne out in America, the rest of the world still has some catching up to do.
But for the first time, every country in the Games will have a female athlete.
Forty years after Title IX, that’s not a bad place to start.