Bahrain Sprinter

December 25, 2006

Bahrain Sprinter

DOHA, Qatar (AP) – Bahrain sprinter Ruqaya Al Ghasara says she isn’t held back by running in a hijab, or full Muslim headscarf. In fact, she says, it makes her even quicker.

“Wearing traditional Muslim dress has encouraged me. It’s not an obstacle – quite the opposite,” said Al Ghasara, who won the gold medal in the 200-metres Monday night in 23.19 seconds.

The bronze medal winner earlier in the 100, Al Ghasara is instantly recognizable in her full-length running suit which leaves only her hands and face exposed. It’s only traditional in spirit, however: The fabric is clingy and stretchable and her white hijab headwear bears the swoosh trademark of her sponsor.

Al Ghasara said her outfit is a personal choice, although tradition weighs heavily. While other Bahraini female athletes compete in the clothing more typical of their sports, many are naturalized Bahraini citizens who were not raised Muslim.

Yet Al Ghasara, who claims U.S. sprinter Marion Jones as a role model, said she hoped her clothing choice would inspire other Muslim women to join in competitive sports.

The 15th Asian Games are the first to be held in an Arab state and Doha officials are using it as a test run to bid for the 2016 Olympics. Other Muslim women have competed in clothes that conform with their traditions, but Al Ghasara has the highest profile.

“Wearing the hijab shows that there are no obstacles. I’ve set my best times wearing the hijab and even qualified for Osaka in it,” she said, referring to the Japanese city which is hosting next year’s World Championships.

Although the soft-spoken Al Ghasara gives few details, she didn’t have the easiest path to the top of her sport.

The 24-year-old athlete was a latecomer to track in a nation where women have traditionally been discouraged from competition.

Discovered running on her high school track, she was pointed out to Bahraini coach Tadjine Noureddine, who led her to her first gold medals at the 2002 Arab Games in Jordan.

“She has excellent qualities as a sprinter,” said Noureddine, a former hurdler.

“The only problem is that she started late and so we’ve had to work hard with stretching and strength. In Bahrain, sports for women is new, only about five years old.”

Training has included psychological strengthening and stretches at high altitude in South Africa, Noureddine said. Through it all, Al Ghasara has stayed mostly injury-free, apart from some back problems, he said.

Al Ghasara, who repeatedly thanked her coach at her post-race news conference, credits him with understanding both the inner workings of the sport and the non-athletic issues involved.

“He is Muslim and an Arab so he knows well the Islamic traditions,” she said.
© The Canadian Press 2006


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