As Saudi women make history, local Olympian recalls struggles of US female athletes

Saudi Arabian women Sarah Attar and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani (behind) take part in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. They are the first women to represent Saudi Arabia in the Olympics. (REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett)

For the first time in Olympic history, women are sporting Saudi Arabia’s flag at the Olympic games.

Just two weeks before the start of the games, this Middle Eastern country known for the restrictions it places on women announced that it would send two female athletes to the Olympics.

Neither athlete has been favored to win or even come close to medaling – the first to compete lost her judo match in a mere 82 seconds. Regardless, they have received their share of global publicity because of the progress that their participation represents – and the controversy surrounding it.

The story sounds familiar to Doris Heritage. Fifty years ago, the young Seattle distance runner played a similar role as a pioneer for women in U.S. sports.

She has been following their stories, and is planning to watch one of the women, Sarah Attar, as she runs the 800 meters tonight.

When Heritage started running, there were no teams for women, most coaches didn’t want to work with women, and athletic clothing companies didn’t even make uniforms for women.

Doris Heritage, a two-time Olympian and SPU’s former cross country and track coach, began her running career in the 1960s when there were few athletic opportunities for women. (Photo courtesy of Doris Heritage)

“Boys had teams. They had the high school and college teams, but girls, like at my high school, girls were not allowed on the track,” she said.

Controversy swirls around the fact that these kinds of basic athletic amenities still aren’t available to Saudi Arabian women today.

Most Saudi schools ban girls from playing sports or even taking gym classes, and their ultraconservative Islamic religion is often the reason for prohibiting women from competing in front of mixed crowds of men and women.

In a video called The Secret Life of a Saudi Women’s Soccer Team, one young Saudi Arabian woman talks about how she has to hide her participation in sports from her community.

“We don’t have clubs, we don’t have trainers. Here, I can’t go and play publicly, because we have to cover,” said the team’s captain Rawh Abdullah.

This additional religious factor, Heritage said, makes the battle ahead for female Saudi Arabian athletes much different than it was for her.

“I think sports is going to be a lot harder for them than it was for us. Here, women just didn’t have certain things. But it’s going to be harder, because there are so many things that [Saudi women] don’t have,” she said.

The path for Heritage wasn’t easy either. Without a women’s team while she was a student at Seattle Pacific University, she got to compete sporadically with the men’s running team – although she was usually only allowed to run the first half of the race. And sometimes, while running around Greenlake, people who didn’t support women’s athletics would throw balls at her or push her into the lake, she said.

Wojdan Shaherkani represented Saudi Arabia in the women’s +78kg judo elimination round on August 3. She lost the match in a little more than a minute. (REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon)

For decades prior to 1960, there were no women’s Olympic track events longer than the 200 meters. The longer events were banned following the 1928 games after it was determined that if women were allowed to run longer events they would “become old too soon.”

When the women’s 800 meter was reinstated for the 1960 games, Heritage was inspired.

She attended the Olympics twice, in 1968 and 1972, and won the first five International Cross Country Championships. Later on, she served as a coach for the 1984 U.S Olympic team, was a member of the Olympic committee and was the first woman on the international governing body for track and field.

Heritage believes that a lot of this success was due to the power of the public athletic arena to fight for women’s rights.

“Women got to vote before then, but other than that, I think that for women, sports really helped. The kind of women who were willing to stick in there and do what you needed to do as an athlete, they showed that women could stand up and do things,” she said.

She thinks that it is only a matter of time before the same kind of demand for inclusion happens for women in Saudi Arabia.

“I’d say in 12 years, I think there are going to be people out there who are going to do it.”