Track and field

Her garb grabs attention

August 20, 2008
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BEIJING - Roqaya Al-Gassra is adding a distinctive touch to the 200 meters at the Olympics.

While most attention in the event is on the duel between the Jamaican and American sprinters, Al-Gassra has qualified for the semifinals wearing a neck-to-ankle suit and hijab, a full Muslim headscarf.

The 25-year-old Bahrain sprinter won the second of four second-round heats yesterday in 22.76 seconds, beating Muriel Hurtis-Houairi of France and Sri Lanka's Susanthika Jayasinghe.

Jamaica's Veronica Campbell-Brown edged American Allyson Felix in the first heat, Russia's Yuliya Chermoshanskaya won the third heat in 22.63 from Jamaica's Kerron Stewart, and another Jamaican, Sherone Simpson, beat US sprinter Muna Lee in the fourth.

Wearing the white hijab and the red full-length suit, Al-Gassra is used to drawing attention - she made her Olympic debut in the heats of the 100 at Athens four years ago, is the reigning Asian Games champion, and has competed on the Golden League circuit.

Her Olympic profile reports she was the first woman to win an athletics race at the West Asian Games - in the 100 at the 2005 edition. Women had not competed in the two previous regional meets.

In the past, she has said her hijab does not bother her, or anyone else. "Wearing traditional Muslim dress has encouraged me. It's not an obstacle - quite the opposite," Al-Gassra said after winning the 200 at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, Qatar.

Other sprinters have competed in full-length running suits that also cover the head - Australia's Cathy Freeman wore similar in the 400 at the Sydney Olympics - but the aim there was to be more aerodynamic than conform with religious or cultural trends.

Al-Gassra has borrowed from both approaches.

The headscarf is traditional in spirit, but the fabric is clingy and stretchable and her headwear has included a sponsor's trademark.

Al-Gassra says her outfit is a personal choice, although custom weighs heavily. While other Bahraini female athletes compete in the clothing more typical of their sports, many are naturalized Bahraini citizens.

"Wearing the hijab shows that there are no obstacles," she said at Doha. "I've set my best times wearing the hijab."

Felix, who wears the typical briefs and singlet top for female athletes at the Olympics, was focussed on Al-Gassra as competition rather than anything else.

"She's really strong - she's been doing really well here," Felix said. (AP)

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