LONDON – The two historic athletes who became the first women to ever represent Saudi Arabia in the Olympic Games have been snubbed by their nation's media and subjected to a campaign of hate.
Sarah Attar ran the 800 meters on the Olympic Stadium track and Wojdan Shaherkani competed in judo earlier in the Games after the Saudi government eased its strict stance on women competing following international pressure.
Attar finished last in her heat and Shaherkani lost her opening bout, with both gaining huge worldwide attention. However, back in Saudi Arabia, the approach was very different.
[ Related: Saudi judoka loses first bout, promises to be back ]
"We were the only newspaper to write about it," said Khaled Al-Maeena, editor of the English-language publication Saudi Gazette, in a telephone conversation with Yahoo! Sports. "I believe these girls are heroines, and we should celebrate as a nation. Unfortunately, other people do not agree."
A sinister Twitter campaign with the hashtag "prostitutes of the Olympics" originated in Saudi Arabia and was used to aim sexist vitriol at the competitors.
The father of judoka Shaherkani was so incensed that he contacted the country's interior minister to demand action against those who had insulted his daughter. Under Saudi law, punishment for insulting a woman's honor and integrity can be up to 100 lashes.
Attar and Shaherkani were late additions to the Saudi team and did not qualify but were admitted into their events in London under an International Olympic Committee regulation that seeks to encourage less established sporting nations.
Even though the women were forced to walk behind their male counterparts at the Opening Ceremony, their presence was seen as a step in the right direction for women's rights in a country where females are still denied many of what would be considered basic human rights in other nations.
However, there is skepticism about the true motives of the decision to allow Attar, a Saudi-American who studies at Pepperdine University, and Shaherkani to compete.
"They allowed them to compete for only one reason," Al-Maeena said. "If you don't send women, then in the future your country will not be allowed to participate [in the Olympics]. It was a wonderful thing to see the girls participate, and it made many people proud, but there was also a motive for it.
"I am a believer in a free press, but there was some filthy language used about them, and it was sad to see."
The Saudi Gazette received criticism from extremists for hailing the two athletes for their achievements. Meanwhile, every Arabic-language newspaper carried widescale coverage of the bronze medal won by the Saudi equestrian show-jumping team, led by royal member Prince Abdullah al Saud.
Attar and Shaherkani did not talk to reporters after their Olympic competitions. It is hoped that their participation can pave the way for more athletes from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei, the only three nations to not send any female athletes to Beijing four years ago. All three had female competitors in these Games.
However, there are still cultural restrictions in place in Saudi Arabia that stand in the way of female athletic progress. Al-Maeena's daughter Lina founded a women's basketball team that has traveled to neighboring Jordan to compete, but the squad has been met with heavy criticism.
"It is not easy as a woman who wants to play sport," said Lina Al-Maeena, who petitioned the IOC to allow her basketball team to represent Saudi Arabia in London but was rejected.
"The extremists said we were not acting as a woman should, that we were wrong and immoral and disrespectful. We just want to play the sport we love and empower other women to compete and play and be athletic. The extremists have their own view, and it is very difficult to change their mind."
Saudi Arabia's national Olympic committee representative did not respond Friday to requests for comment or permission to speak to Attar and Shaherkani.
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