JEDDAH — History was made Friday night at the opening ceremony of the London Games 2012 when two young Saudi female Olympians walked alongside the Saudi Olympic team waving Saudi flags.
Saudis eagerly anticipated the moment Sarah Attar and Wojdan Shahrkhani made their official appearance and online social networking websites were abuzz with users posting screen shots of Shahrkhani and Attar walking out with the country’s delegation. Users voiced their support for the duo and said they had made the country proud.
Nineteen-year-old Attar will compete in the 800 meters, and Shahrkhani, 16, will be competing in the 78-kg weight category in judo.
Lina Almaeena, co-founder of Jeddah United Sports Co. and captain of Jeddah United basketball team, said Friday was historic as Attar and Shahrkhani’s participation is going to change many negative stereotypes on Saudi women in sports.
“Their participation itself is a campaign to accept women in sports. I was very happy to see them on Friday and it’s a huge challenge,” she said.
“I hope Saudi female athletes will be carrying the flag in the next Olympics,” Almaeena added.
Shahad Jeyad, a 26-year-old sports enthusiast, echoed Almaeena’s words and said the two girls will open the door for other Saudi women to participate in the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.
“Their participation will prompt more sports centers to open and physical education for girls may finally be offered in government schools,” she said.
Mohammed Saud Al-Jamal, a blogger and journalist, said that allowing women to participate in sports must start from within the Kingdom.
“If the millions of people who saw the Saudi Olympic team yesterday found out that the two women are not allowed to practice sports in their country, they would laugh at us,” he said.
Al-Jamal, however, doesn’t expect much from the two athletes and said the Saudi Olympic Committee is aware of this as well. “I believe they should have spent money on properly preparing and training young people before sending them to the Games,” he added.
Since the International Olympics Committee (IOC) announced that the Kingdom will be sending two female athletes to the Games, the news was met with mixed reactions and comments on social networking websites such as Twitter and Facebook.
Many members of society considered their participation an affront to the country’s traditions with one Twitter user creating a hashtag that questioned the girls’ morals.
The creator of the hashtag received a harsh backlash for the inappropriate name.
“Athletes from Muslim countries have been participating in the Olympics for years. Sport only becomes dishonorable when Saudi women practice it,” said one user on Twitter.
“The creator of this hashtag has no morals and such mentalities should be put in prison for speaking about the girls’ honor,” tweeted another user. Others said the creator of the hashtag should be held accountable by the government and punished for his allegations.
Despite the criticism, negative or positive, users said female participation in the Olympics is a step forward, and that it’s time for Saudi women to take the stage and make history.
On Thursday, the President of the International Judo Federation, Marius Vizer, confirmed that Shahrkhani would not be allowed to wear a hijab. Vizer told reporters that Shahrkhani would fight according to “the principle and spirit of judo” in the women’s heavyweight tournament next Friday.
Saudi Arabia isn’t the only country to send female athletes for the first time, Qatar and Brunei made similar moves and for the first time ever, all countries taking part in the Olympics have both men and women taking part.