Riyadh: With just 11 sportspeople competing at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Saudi Arabia's delegation will still be historic: it will include four women, an unprecedented number for a country where women's rights are severely restricted.
In London 2012, athlete Sarah Attar and judoka Wojdan Shaherkani became the first Saudi women to compete in an Olympics. Four years later, Saudi female presence will double and those women will be more ambitious, although their prospects remain modest.
In her second Games, Attar will move from the 800 m to the marathon on the streets of Rio. Fencer Lubna Al-Omair, judoka Wujud Fahmi (set to compete in the 52 kg category) and sprinter Cariman Abu Al-Jadail (who will run the 100 m) will all be in Brazil.
These sportswomen, who live and train mostly in the United States, received a special invitation from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to compete at the Games that start on 5 August.
Religious rules in Saudi Arabia, a kingdom under strict Islamic law, do not allow women to do sport and therefore to take part in Olympic qualification events, so an IOC invitation was in fact the only way they could compete at the Games.
"The International Olympic Committee has now given us four invitations and we are preparing to take them up," a source at the Saudi Olympic Committee told dpa. "We will take all necessary measures to ensure that Saudi Arabia's participation is fully compliant in all respects."
The IOC's Olympic Charter has for several years demanded that every delegation include at least one woman. Based on this rule and on the possibility of facing sanctions for violations, Saudi Arabia competed in London 2012, for the first time in history, with two women.
After that historic achievement, Attar will once again be at the Games, but now her ambitions go beyond a mere presence. Born in the US state of California to a US mother and a Saudi father, the athlete was finally able to train full-time as an athlete after London 2012.
"A lot has changed since then. Oiselle, an athletic apparel company for women, sponsors me, and I am living and training full-time with an elite group of distance runners in Mammoth Lakes, California," Attar said in an article she wrote for the women's magazine Marie Claire.
Now aged 23, Attar is increasingly aware of the significance of her participation in the 2012 Olympics, when she was still an inexperienced teenager and was barely starting to study art, history and graphic design at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.
"More and more, I am realizing my place in history. There is a whole generation of girls in Saudi Arabia who now have a female Olympic role model to look up to-that didn't exist before. They'll grow up knowing that competing in the Olympics is a possibility, and that's what means the most to me," Attar noted.
In London, she starred in an unforgettable scene. She crossed the finish line last, all on her own, with a time of 2:44 minutes in the 800 m and received a resounding ovation and media attention from around the world. Now she will be taking part in the marathon, a distance she says she feels very comfortable in.
"Although I competed in the 800 m in London, I love long-distance running. The marathon is such a beautiful challenge and I am really diving into marathon training to see what I am capable of at this distance," she told Like the Wind magazine.
Under the guidance of her US coach Andrew Kastor, Attar has already run the Boston marathon, among other elite events.
Saudi sprinter Cariman Abu Al-Jadail, who will be running the 100 m, is a student at Boston University and trains under US coach Francesca Ebonique Green. After taking part in the indoor athletics world championships in Portland in March, she hopes to make her presence in Rio more than just a symbol.
Fahmi is set to be the second Saudi judoka at a Games, following Shaherkani's participation in London. Like her compatriots, she received intensive training in the United States ahead of Rio 2016.
Fencer Al-Omair will be taking part in her first international event. Since women are not allowed to join sports clubs in Saudi Arabia, she joined a special training camp in Egypt and will travel to Brazil straight from there to make her Olympic dreams come true.
Despite the presence of several women, the Saudi Olympic Committee insists that it will violate none of the country's religious rules and that female athletes will have to dress and behave as required.
"We confirm that we will continue to act in accordance with government and religious regulations in this field. Under no circumstances will we breach them. [.] Saudi female athletes will participate in complete accordance with religious regulations in all respects," a committee source told dpa.
First Published On : Aug 4, 2016 12:54 IST