When Ruqaya Al Ghasara won the women’s 200m final at the recent Asian Games in Doha, she became the first Bahraini born athlete to win a major international athletics gold medal. Chris Broadbent spoke to the outstanding young woman whose road to success hasn’t been the easiest.
Bahrain’s Ruqaya Al Ghasara has become used to firsts.
She was the first Muslim woman from her country ever to take up serious athletics.
In 2004, she became the first Muslim woman from an Arabian country to compete at the Olympic Games and in 2005 she was the first woman to ever win a race at the West Asian Games, when the Doha-hosted competition allowed female competitors for the first time ever.
But her most treasured first of all came in December last year, when she returned to the Qatari capital for the Asian Games and won the women’s 200m final. The 24-year-old, who also won bronze in the 100m, became one of the icons of the four-yearly multi-sport spectacular, both for her achievements on the track but also for her choice of clothing.
Being a devoutly religious figure, the sprinter competes in full length track pants, long sleeve top and the traditional Muslim headscarf, the hijab over her hair, conforming to the Islamic dress code.
Predictably, her attire arouses a large amount of interest from those not used to Islamic conventions. “Many, many people ask me about the hijab. I am asked ‘What is it?’, ‘Why are your wearing it?’ It is very strange for foreign people. Some think it is because my hair is not ready.” She smiles.
However, there is no denying Al Ghasara’s modest track wear does put her in stark contrast to her contemporaries, particularly in the sprints where minimalism is prevalent as every athlete seeks to find every small advantage, in this case, aerodynamism.
“I do not think about what I and the other people on the startline are wearing. All I am thinking about is the finish.” She says. She also rejects the notion that her loose-fitting kit is a hindrance. Quite the opposite.
“It’s not just a matter of wearing a piece of cloth. There is something very special about wearing the hijab. It gives me strength. I feel lots of support from society because I am wearing the Islamic hijab. There is a relationship between the hijab and the heart.” She says.
Al Ghasara discovered her talent for sport at school, where the other school children were always particularly keen to have her on their team when they played basketball or handball, mainly for her speed.
“When I was at school, I was known as the fastest one. If the teachers wanted to send messages to one another they would say ‘Give it Ruqaya and we know it will get there quickly.’” She says.
Unsurprisingly, she starred at school sports days, winning most events and winning the title of school champion. Her obvious talent prompted her teacher Sawsan Tagawi to take the 17-year-old direct to the Bahrain Athletics Association (BAA) in 2000.
At the time, there were no athletics clubs open to women in the country, with only a limited amount of team sports available for women to partake. However, changes were afoot as the new millennium dawned; attitudes relaxed and the BAA welcomed Al Ghasara warmly.
After a series of basic tests, they agreed that she did possess an impressive natural aptitude for the sport. But with no real coaching programme for women, she was given a basic routine which consisted of running for one-and-a-half hours, three days per week.
Only in 2003 did she begin an intensive training programme under the tutelage of coach Tadjine Noureddine. The Algerian, who represented his country in the men’s 110m Hurdles at the 1993 IAAF World Athletics Championships, set her out on a structured six hours per day, six days per week routine.
However, her involvement in the sport was not universally approved. Some residents of her home village, Aali, 10km outside the capital of Manama, expressed concerns that athletics was not a suitable pastime for an Islamic woman.
However, her father was a former footballer and understood the value of sport and Ruqaya continued. As her training stepped up, so Al Ghasara rose to the challenge. She travelled to the 2003 Arabian Championships in Lebanon – her first ever international event for Bahrain – and returned with gold medals in the 100m and 200m.
On her return home, she was delighted to see her fellow villagers had all turned out at the airport to congratulate her on her success. She was becoming used to changing perceptions.
The following year, she added to her medal collection by winning silver medals in the 60m, 200m and 400m at the Asian Indoor Championships in Iran and went on to represent Bahrain over 400m at the World Indoor Championships in Budapest, Hungary.
Even more significantly, that summer, she took her place amongst the world’s greatest athletes on the sport’s biggest stage, when she took part in the Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.
Lining-up in heat one of the women’s 100m, she was the first of four athletes in the field who were the first Islamic women from their country to ever compete at the Olympics. Notably, she was also the fastest, finishing just sixth-hundredths of a second short of qualifying for the second round.
As a youngster, the Olympics had always been her dream. “When I was small, I wished that I could go just to see them. To compete there was amazing. I would think ‘Inshallah.’”, she says, using the popular Arabic expression, which roughly translates into English as “God-willing.”
Despite an injury-afflicted year in 2005, she managed to win 100m gold at the West Asian Games in Doha, taking 100m gold in a relatively modest 12.28 seconds.
After a successful winter’s training, 2006 was seen as a year where she could make real progress on the international stage and the year-ending Asian Games would provide the perfect opportunity.
She cruised through the heats of the 100m and lined-up in the final on 9 December. Clearly nervous, Ruqaya false-started. In the second running, she was the slowest out of the blocks, but by halfway, her speed began to tell and she finished fast to take bronze in 11.40.
Gold went to World Indoor semi-finallist Guzel Khubbieva of Uzbekistan in 11.27, with Susanthika Jayasinghe of Sri Lanka picking up the silver with 11.34.
With one medal already banked, Al Ghasara turned confidently to the 200m, her stronger event, and cruised through the following day’s heats as fastest qualifier. For the final on 11 December, she started as slight favourite. Despite another sluggish start, she came bursting through to win in 23.19.
The medal positions from the 100m were shuffled, with Khubbieva second and former Olympic 200m bronze medallist Jayasinghe in third. Al Ghasara’s best time from 2006 was 23.02 (-0.8m/s), placing her in the world’s top 60 and nicely poised to make a serious assault on the world scene in the coming year.
Bahrain Athletics Association (BAA) General Secretary Abdul Rahman Askar has identified her as one of several athletes who could be the first ever from Bahrain to win an Olympic medal.
Al Ghasara is the only-born-and-raised national in this group. The others, such as Moroccan-born Rashid Ramzi, 800m and 1500m double gold medallist from the 2005 IAAF World Championships have been granted Bahraini citizenship, despite not being born in the country.
2007 will see Al Ghasara target the Pan Arab Games in Eqypt, Asian Championships in Lebanon and IAAF World Championships in Osaka, Japan. Of the events, she says: “The Arab should be easy, the Asian too should be okay, but the World Championships are the main target. I will be trying for a medal.”
Ambitious? Maybe, but she feels that such achievements are within her reach. “There is a big gap between what I have achieved and what I can achieve. I am focussing on improving my strength, developing my speed and keep training hard.”
Coach Noureddine is more cautious. “This year is about Ruqaya getting experience of the really big competitions. We are really aiming for the Olympic Games in Beijing and she needs to gain more experience at the highest level. Osaka is very important for this.”
Al Ghasara will return to the scene of her greatest triumph when she opens her season at the IAAF Super Grand Prix in Doha on 11 May. She also plans to compete in several meetings in Europe throughout the summer as she attempts to climb the track and field hierarchy.
With her obvious ability and determination to succeed, she has all the traits to make the step up to the sport’s highest levels. But no matter what she achieves in the future, Al Ghasara has already made a huge difference in her country and the region. Since her success, the BAA has seen scores of girls taking up athletics in Bahrain.
Relatively speaking, it is a small amount, but a giant leap forward from where the sport was in the country a few years ago. Parents, particularly those with daughters, regularly seek her advice. “They want to know if it is safe to keep girls and boys mixing close together and keep close to Islamic traditions.” She says.
She always re-assures them in her cheerful manner, quickly coming across as a great role model to aspire to. This year, Bahrain will host the first ever Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) Youth Championships for girls.
Hundreds of youngsters from Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait will line-up dreaming that they too might be the next Ruqaya Al Ghasara. Whether she ever mounts an Olympic Games or World Championship podium or not, surely there can be no greater legacy than that?
Published in IAAF Magazine issue 1 - 2007