She painted each finger nail with a tiny Palestinian flag and then went out and ran the best 800 metres of her life.
Palestine’s Woroud Sawalha knows she can’t keep up with the world’s best runners at the Olympics and she finished 21 seconds behind the winner of her heat Wednesday. But she came to London with two objectives; to run faster than ever and to set an example for Palestinian women. She managed both.
On the track she ran 2:29.16, breaking her best time of 2:40.12. “My target was to make a new record for myself and for Palestine. I got it,” she said after the heat through a translator.
As for setting an example: “My parents called me before the race and said 'all Palestinians are watching and hoping you get a good result’,” she said. “I hope I will do well in the future. This Olympic Games is a first step for me.”
The 20-year-old university student from Nablus on the West Bank ran in a long sleeved blue shirt, long pants and a white hijab. She’s one of two women competing for Palestine at the Olympics, which has never sent female athletes before. She told reporters she thought about decorating some of her hijab with Palestinian flags, but stuck to her fingernails instead.
The International Olympic Committee recognized the Palestinian Olympic Committee in 1993, following a peace accord between Palestine and Israel. Three years later in Atlanta, Palestine competed for the first time at an Olympics.
Training isn’t easy for Sawalha who has spoken before about the difficulties finding places to work out because of travel restrictions imposed by the Israelis. The Olympic committees of Palestine and Israel have met a couple of times this year to work out travel arrangements for Palestinian athletes and coaches. So far no agreement has been reached but Sawalha said she and her fellow Palestinian athletes had no trouble getting to London for the Games.
The London Olympics are particularly sensitive for Palestinian and Israeli athletes. The Games come 40 years after 11 Israeli athletes were killed at the Munich Olympics by Palestinian attackers. The IOC has been under intense pressure to acknowledge the deaths with a minute of silence during the London Games but the organization has refused.
Moments after Sawalha finished her heat Wednesday, history was being made in another round of the 800 metres when Sarah Attar became the first woman to compete in track for Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis had been under pressure from the IOC to include women on their team and in the end the country included two; Attar and judoka Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani. The Saudis created controversy last week by demanding that Shahrkhani, 16, compete in a hijab. The judo federation refused at first and then relented. Shahrkhani wore a modified hijabe and lost her only bout in less than two minutes. But she became a media sensation with hundreds of reporters crowding around her as she left the judo mat.
Attar, 19, did not attract nearly the same attention. She ran in a long sleeved shirt, pants and a hijab and finished last in her heat in 2:44.95. Only a handful of reporters met her after the race and she had little to say.
“It’s an incredible experience just to be here,” she said before walking off. Attar holds dual Saudi and American citizenship and is a student at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles.
Both Attar and Sawalha competed in the Games through a special invitation of the IOC, which often opens spots for competitors from developing countries who have not met the qualifying standards.