ABU DHABI // Cathy Freeman, the former Australian 400m runner, feels the performance of Ruqaya al Ghasra, the Bahraini sprinter, at the Beijing Olympics should provide inspiration to other Gulf women. Al Ghasra became the first female born in the region to compete in a global athletics event when she reached the semi-final of the 200m wearing a full-body jumpsuit and a hajib.
Freeman became an icon in Australia after winning gold at the Sydney Olympics and feels al Ghasra should be held in similar esteem by Muslim women. "If female athletes from the region feel happy wearing the hajib while they are competing then so be it," said Freeman. "Whether they are on the track or in the gym, it is important to conduct yourself in your own comfort zone, your element. If that also means they are paying homage or respecting their ancestors and faith, then great. Hopefully more will follow.
"I'm not completely aware of all the cultural and religious sensitivities and expectations in the Arab world, but athletics - and sport in general - is all about respect." Freeman, in Abu Dhabi for tonight's Laureus Sports Awards, warned aspiring Arab female athletes require greater nurturing, coaching and funding if they are to reach international standard. "Role models are really important," said the 37-year-old. "When I was a child I loved meeting athletes from other countries, as well as athletes from my own. Bringing in people from other countries fosters a sense of togetherness.
"But it's not just about bringing individuals together, it's about bringing cultures together as well. Maybe that means governments working in tandem and with other people who are passionate about the development of sports, like administrators and coaches." Ahmed al Kamali, the UAE Athletics Federation president and chairman of the GCC Athletics organising committee, said women's athletics is a high priority.
"Considering our religious and traditional customs, we are careful in how we manage things," he said. "We have no historical track and field role models for our girls. But even still, we have put together a 14-strong Under 17 squad to compete in this month's women-only athletics meet in Abu Dhabi. Every GCC country, except Saudi Arabia, is sending teams. "Our squad will compete in 10 events and we will use the week-long meet to assess the girls' technical behaviour before Singapore's Youth Olympics later this year.
"The ball is rolling and our dreams are big. The future belongs to dreamers and we are hoping that some of these girls will be the role models for the next generation of female Emirati athletes." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org