How Saudi Arabia’s Sarah Attar Completed the Rio Marathon Covered Head to Toe

Sarah Attar crossing the finish line in the women's marathon at the 2016 Summer Olympics. (Photo: AP)
Sarah Attar crossing the finish line in the women's marathon at the 2016 Summer Olympics. (Photo: AP)

Saudi Arabian marathon runner Sarah Attar finished the Olympic marathon in three hours and 14 seconds, roughly 52 minutes behind the winner. But even so, her grit and determination were as palpable as that of any athlete in the Games. Covered head to toe in conservative clothing to honor her religious beliefs, Attar spent the whole 26.2 miles dripping in sweat to break barriers for a subset of female athletes around the world.

This is Attar’s second Olympics, but Sunday was her first appearance in the marathon. She was sporting an outfit designed by Oiselle, an athletic apparel company whose goal is to empower women to compete at the highest level possible. Sally Bergesen, Oiselle’s CEO, met Attar back in 2012, after she’d just competed in the London Olympics. They began concocting plans for a functional design in case Attar was able to compete in Rio in 2016, which became especially pertinent when Attar decided to run the marathon for her father’s country.

Sarah Attar rounds the women's marathon loop at Batafogo Beach in Rio. (Photo: Getty Images)
Sarah Attar rounds the women's marathon loop at Batafogo Beach in Rio. (Photo: Getty Images)

To create Attar’s look, Bergesen didn’t focus so much on politics, culture, or religion as on functionality for an athlete with special concerns. “As a designer, it was a unique challenge,” she tells Yahoo Style. “With athletic gear, it’s typically straightforward. In cold sports, you’re wearing clothes to keep you warm. In hot sports, you wear less. This uniform would need coverage, be able to be worn in a place that’s hot and humid, and for a long duration.”

The top was designed with Polartec Delta fabric, which has unique capabilities. “The knit is very lightweight cooling, and most of the area hovers off the skin; the small portion that does touch the body transfers sweat away from the skin,” Bergesen says. “The running tights were relatively standard, and the arm sleeves were made with the same Polartec Delta fabric.” Attar also wore Oiselle’s Roga hat, which protected her face from the sun.

In addition, Bergesen needed to make sure the entire look wasn’t too body-conscious for Attar. The final outfit had a stretchy wrap over the waist, appropriate for a runner and not too “ballerina-like.” After a year of iterations and several long-distance tests, Attar wore the design in the tough Rio climate. Bergesen was glad to see her finish close to her personal best in the event.

Bergesen was excited to partner with an athlete breaking barriers in her sport, and to be a small part of the women’s athletic movement Attar is helping to lead within the Muslim world. “She is basically creating change through her participation in sports,” she says. “It’s incremental progress, and there’s a long way to go, but these steps are a huge way forward.”

Other female athletes are also fighting for the right to play in clothes that respect their will to compete and uphold their values. Rio Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad has represented the United States wearing her hijab — a first.

Other retailers are also starting to cater to the need for female athletic wear for groups with special dress requirements — Orthodox Jewish and Muslim women, for example. Veil Garments and Snoga Athletics are both tailored for active women needing more modest coverage.

These designs should help remove some of the obstacles faced by women with special clothing concerns as they compete in sports and maintain an active lifestyle.

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