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USOC lifted the bar for Muslim woman

A year later, competing for Pakistan, she hopes for Olympic chance

by Philip Hersh / Chicago Tribune

Next week at the Asian Weightlifting Championships in South Korea, a computer engineer from Atlanta will take another step she hopes could lead to the 2012 London Olympics.

That Kulsoom Abdullah has gotten this far is nothing short of a miracle, given what she needed to overcome in the often hidebound world of international sports.

It is a miracle for which the United States Olympic Committee deserves global praise at a time when much of the world criticizes the USOC for being selfish because it wants a fair and necessary share of both U.S. television rights for the Games and global Olympic sponsorship rights, more than half of which come from U.S. multinationals.

Without the USOC – especially Dragomir Cioroslan, its International Relations Director – Abdullah’s petition for rule changes about competition costumes that would allow her to feel comfortable as both a Muslim woman and a weightlifter never would have reached the proper authorities.

The result of the USOC’s help is Abdullah, a U.S. citizen, has been able to compete in major events – for her parents’ native country, Pakistan.

“I clearly believe this shows we are a selfless organization,” Cioroslan said.

While that clearly is not true in all cases, as cash-starved U.S. athletes who chafe at the big USOC management salaries can point out, it definitely is true in this one.

And Abdullah’s case represents progress for all Muslim women, even as the repressive sheikhs in Saudi Arabia still refuse to name a woman to their Olympic team.

This all developed barely a year ago, when the Council on American-Islamic Relations sent a letter to USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun asking for support in effecting the changes Abdullah needed to compete in major U.S. events.

Blackmun turned to Cioroslan, a vice-president of the International Weightlifting Federation.

“Scott told me, `If we can help, this is the right thing to do,”’ Cioroslan said. “We feel sports should be accepting and inclusive.”

Cioroslan somehow succeeded at getting the item on the IWF agenda for a key meeting a month later. To its credit, the international federation immediately adopted changes that would accommodate both the sport’s technical rules and Adbullah’s desire to satisfy her cultural and religious norms.

“(After) CAIR and the media took my plight to the USOC, their (USOC) subsequent intervention in helping me have my voice heard was monumental for me,” Adbullah said in an email.

“The time and effort spent finally became a reality, officially breaking boundaries, leading myself and other women to potentially more opportunities.”

Abdullah’s first event was last summer’s U.S. Championships, where she was a distant fifth of six in the 106-pound class. After that, she contacted the Pakistan Weightlifting Federation, which chose her as the first female lifter to represent the country at the World Championships last November.

The USOC was fine with that.

“It’s not unusual for an athlete to pursue an Olympic dream through all avenues open to them,” Cioroslan said.

Adbullah, who turned 36 in March and began competing only two years ago, was among just eight women representing a predominantly Muslim country in a field with 223 entrants. She finished 23rd of 27 in her weight class, lifting 100 pounds less than the 22nd finisher.

“I feel very fortunate to be able to compete at high levels when my abilities are not as high as the other athletes from other countries…and at the same time help make a difference,” she said.

Pakistan has not earned a 2012 Olympic women’s weightlifting spot, but it can get one of 12 “wild card” invitations.

It would be easy – and not wrong – to say there are so many women whose results far outweigh Abdullah’s that she should not go to London ahead of them.

But the international federation already has made a statement by giving Abdullah – and all women who prefer more coverage of their bodies, not just Muslims – the freedom she needed to compete.

That is how Abdullah came to follow U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the lectern at a State Department reception for Eid ul-Fitr last September. Clinton introduced her by saying she is “forging the way for Muslim women athletes to maintain their freedom of expression and still compete at the highest level.”

Weightlifting, a sport as old as Atlas, has shown itself to be far more progressive about women athletes than sports like volleyball, which has insisted women wear skintight short shorts for the indoor game and until recently mandated bikinis for beach volleyball.

The attention Abdullah would get in London would spread the message IWF President Tamas Ajan insisted was behind the change.

“This rule modification has been considered in the spirit of fairness, equality and inclusion,” Ajan said.

So was the USOC’s decision to help a woman who never will wear “USA” on her costume.