INCHEON South Korea (Reuters) - The issue of religious freedom took center stage at the Asian Games on Wednesday when Qatari women forfeited a basketball game after refusing to remove the Islamic head scarf, dealing another blow to an event that trumpets diversity and inclusiveness.
Organizers of Incheon’s Asian Games, which have welcomed 9,500 athletes from 45 countries across the length and breadth of the world’s most populous continent, said their hands were tied by International Basketball Federation (FIBA) regulations.
Qatari player Ahlam Salem M. Al-Mana said the team had decided to send a strong message to the governing body by refusing to take the court against Mongolia.
“We have to take this stand,” she said. “We knew about the hijab ban, but we have to be here.
“We have to show everyone that we are ready to play, but the international association is not ready.”
The row overshadowed another lively day of action in Incheon, where China’s gold rush hit full stride and South Korea tightened their grip on second place ahead of rivals Japan.
After five days of competition, China top the medal table on 59 golds, followed by the Koreans on 26 and Japan on 20.
China’s dominance in the pool continued with four more titles, including a fourth gold for teenager Shen Duo, while Japan’s Kosuke Hagino also won his fourth title of the Games.
The Japanese 20-year-old blew away his rivals on the final lap to win the men’s 400 meters individual medley final — the most grueling event in the pool — and show why he is one of the early favorites to win gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“My strategy was to bring the very best potential in me for the last 100m and it worked well,” said Hagino, who broke the Asian Games record and has now won a total of six medals in Incheon and has one more event to go.
“The record is not bad either.”
There was success, too, for Singapore as Joseph Schooling touched first for the city-state in the men’s 100m butterfly.
“I was pretty confident at the start that I would win,” said Schooling. “I knew from the start that I wanted to win, and if they wanted to stop me they would have to die trying.”
It was the first gold of the Games for Singapore, which has a population of 5.4 million.
India, with its 1.2 billion, has also managed just the one.
“We need to change our mindset first. Obviously the system which we are following is not correct,” former India shooter Moraad Ali Khan told Reuters.
“We need to change.”
Qatar’s frustrated basketball players were also demanding change on Wednesday after they were asked, in accordance with FIBA rules, to remove the hijab ahead of their opening group game against Mongolia.
However, the players refused, saying it violated their religious beliefs and they wanted to send a strong message to the sport’s governing federation that the ban was unfair.
FIBA Article 4.2.2 dictates that players cannot wear “headgear, hair accessories and jewelry,” though narrow headbands are permitted.
Husain Al-Musallam, director general of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), said: “The right of the athletes must be the highest priority.”
Sports federations had a duty to protect athletes and “allow them to exercise their right of freedom of choice with dignity,” he added in a statement.
A Qatari official told Reuters the team had not decided if they would play in their next match against Nepal on Thursday.
The issue of diversity was raised even before the Games began on Sept. 19 when Saudi Arabia revealed that its 199-strong team did not include any female athletes.
The Saudi stance sparked criticism from Human Rights Watch, which condemned its all-male line-up, saying the ultra-conservative state was shutting the door on female athletes, having previously shown signs of wanting to break down barriers.
South Korea’s strong female contingent picked up three more golds on Wednesday, including 50m rifle prone team event at the Ongnyeon International Shooting Range.
The hosts also took the men’s individual and team 25m rapid fire pistol gold medals, with only Mongolia’s Narantuya Chuluunbadrakh denying them a sweep on Wednesday.
China’s sharpshooters failed to register a gold for the first time since the shooting events started on Saturday.
“The Chinese are also a very strong team but the pressure got to them at the Asian Games,” said South Korea’s Na Yoon-kyung, who won a gold medal in the rifle prone team event.
North Korea’s athletes have drawn praise for their remarkable feats of strength in the weightlifting competition, but on Wednesday Hong Un Jong won gold with graceful flight.
The gymnast won North Korea’s fourth gold of the Games in the women’s vault.
Editing by Sudipto Ganguly