August 21, 2000


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Pak to field woman runner in Sydney

Scott McDonald in Islamabad

Shazia Hidayat will not come close to setting any records or winning any medals when she competes at next month's Summer Olympics.

But the 1,500-metre runner is still a rarity because she will be representing Pakistan, who infrequently send women to international sports events.

And the problems Hidayat faces, coming from a poor country where attention to women's sports is minimal, mirror the difficulties confronted by women athletes in many Asian countries.

"The basic problem we face is lack of facilities and lack of training," she said recently during a break at a track near the capital Islamabad.

The 21-year-old student from Chichawatni, a small town in central Punjab province, is a champion in Pakistan, but says the lack of training and proper coaching have made it difficult to compete outside the country.

"Now we are preparing for Olympics but the training camp is just for two months in Islamabad. How can we fulfil our fitness requirements?" said Hidayat, whose best time in the 1,500 metres of four minutes 48 seconds is far outside the winning time of 4:00.83 in Atlanta.

Although Sydney organisers expect a record number of women to take part in the Summer Games -- 38 percent of the total, up from 34 percent four years ago -- Asian women will lag behind.

There are exceptions such as China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, but many other countries will send few women athletes or poorly trained ones.

A report by International Olympic Committee Vice President Anita DeFrantz last year said that out of the 43 Asian countries which participated in Atlanta, 11 did not send any women.

By contrast, all 48 European nations taking part sent women.

"We have to cross cultural and social barriers, overcome superstitions and taboos and break down prejudices," DeFrantz said.

Farrukh Naz, who is in charge of Hidayat's training camp, said that in addition to a lack of resources and training facilities, there was a general apathy towards sports among women in countries like Pakistan.

"The first preference is always towards the men's teams. They think investing in women is a waste of time and waste of funds," she said.

Even in India, with its huge population, the participation of women in Olympics has gone up only marginally since 1952 when the first Indian woman to take part in the Olympics was long jumper Mary Leela Rao.

"Since 1952, the number of women participants from India may have gone up marginally but not as much as one would have expected in country with a population of about one billion," senior sports journalist Norris Pritam told Reuters.

He said there were social reasons behind the low turnout of women in sports.

"Girls take to sports at 13-14 years age and by the time they reach 19-20 years, there is pressure on them to get married and settle down. To succeed in the tough international arena, you have to have dedication and long-term commitment, which is lacking," Pritam said.

Sprinter P.T. Usha has been the only Indian women athlete to make a mark in international sports events, with a fourth place finish in the 400-metre hurdles at the 1984 Olympic games.

Tradition and religious opposition are also factors weighing against Asian women. Before the Atlanta Games, the IOC rejected demands from a coalition of women's groups which wanted the IOC to ban Moslem countries which discriminated against women athletes.

The women's groups said the countries should be banned in the same way South Africa was once banned because of its racist policies.

But women are doing better in some Moslem countries, even poor ones such as Indonesia.

Female athletes will contribute almost half of Indonesia's Sydney contingent, and sports official Sudewo brushed off the idea that culture was an obstacle for women athletes in the world's largest Moslem country.

"There has been no objection from religious and cultural groups because sports have their own rules and guidance," said Sudewo, deputy chairman of the National Sports Committee.

"It's not an impossibility that women can do better than men. We have the example of weightlifting. Three women will go to Sydney... but no men," Sudewo said.

In Sri Lanka, the hopes of the nation rest on a woman, sprinter Susanthika Jayasinghe, to break a 52-year medal drought.

After she won a silver in the 200 metres at the World Championships in 1997, expectations have been growing on Jayasinghe to win Sri Lanka's first medal since Duncan White won a silver in 1948 in the 400 metres hurdles.

Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the region, first competed in the Olympics in 1984, but Sydney will be the first Games to which they will send women athletes.

Malaysia are sending eight women athletes to the 2000 Games.

"In Malaysia, we encourage women in sports as much as possible. They have equal opportunities as men," said Seah Kok Chi, an official of the Olympic Council of Malaysia.

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