ATLANTA -- An Atlanta woman who qualified to compete in her first, national, Olympics-sanctioned weightlifting competition next month in Iowa received some unexpected, good news on Thursday.
The athlete is Kulsoom Abdullah. She may be the only Muslim woman in the world aspiring to compete in Olympics-class weightlifting, or, at least, one of a very few.
Abdullah found out that the International Weightlifting Federation has just agreed to consider her request to allow weightlifters to cover their heads (not their faces), necks, arms and legs during competitions, instead of having to wear uniforms that expose their heads, necks, arms and legs.
"The fact that it's gong to even be discussed, I think that's really great," Abdullah said Thursday at the gym in NW Atlanta where she trains. "I'm happy about that and it gives me some hope that [the sport] might be more accessible to women who might not think about doing something like [competing in weightlifting]."
As it is, USA Weightlifting, the governing body for U.S. weightlifters at the Olympics, had already told Abdullah she could not compete in the nationals next month unless she agrees to wear the official, tight-fitting, one-piece tank-top and shorts, since that is the uniform required by the IWF.
Abdullah said, thanks, but no thanks, she always wears a head scarf around her hair and neck, and long sleeves and long pants.
But she also pointed out that the U.S. Olympics Committee requires "equal opportunity to amateur athletes... to participate in amateur athletic competition without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age or national origin...."
Abdullah requested again that someone at least speak with her about an alternative uniform she could wear.
So USAW reconsidered, and went to bat for Abdullah by asking the IWF to reconsider the rule on uniforms. The IWF agreed to do so, at a meeting at the end of the month.
"She just wants to compete on a national level," said her trainer, Travis Cooper. "She's trying just to work with USAW and get something that fits both her faith and the sports competition."
Cooper said the current rule that requires exposed necks, elbows and knees has been in place to help judges make sure competitors are performing their lifts properly. But he said that the type of scarves, sleeves and leg-wear that Abdullah wears should allow judges to do their jobs just as they do now.
"It's kind of an out-dated rule," he said. "Not many Muslim women have tried to fight this or tried to weight-lift on a national level or an international level."
Abdullah is a woman of tiny stature and soft voice. She said she's asking, not fighting, to change the rule.
"I'm not really wanting to force things. If I can't, if they say no, I won't go. I just thought I would just try it, it would be nice. But if not, I mean, I would still practice the sport."
Abdullah has participated in local tournaments where there are no requirements on the uniforms that athletes' wear, and she said she would continue to compete on that level.
"This is how I always dress, I've dressed like this for a long time," she said.
It's an issue that has been coming up more frequently because, Abdullah said, more and more Muslim women who wear head scarves and long sleeves and long pants are finding it socially acceptable to compete in sports.
There is no consistency among the Olympics sports federations that have ruled on requests from women athletes who want to be covered.
For example, the organization that governs boxing for the Olympics agreed to allow Afghanistan's women's boxing team to compete in the 2012 Olympics wearing head scarves in the ring.
But the organization that governs soccer for the Olympics disqualified Iran's women's soccer team from competing in the 2012 Olympics because the athletes wanted to wear head scarves during the matches.
Kulsoom Abdullah came late to the sport of weightlifting.
She is 35 years old, born in the USA to parents who are originally from Pakistan. She earned a Ph.D. from Georgia Tech in Electrical Computer Engineering. She started lifting weights seriously in 2008 as part of her workout routine, then started participating in local competitions in early 2010.
The issue of the uniform is all that is keeping her from advancing to national and international competitions.
"I'd like to just go to a national competition, and then just take one step at a time and see what happens."
Link to Abullah's website: http://www.liftingcovered.com/