By Kari Huus, msnbc.com senior reporter
Kulsoom Abdullah, of Atlanta, competes during the national weightlifting championships on Friday in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Kulsoom Abdullah headed into Friday’s USA National Weightlifting Competition with modest expectations, but even before she stepped up to the barbell she had won a major victory.
Until two weeks ago Abdullah didn’t expect to compete because internationally sanctioned events didn’t allow her to compete with her arms and legs covered — and doing so without the covering ran counter to her Islamic faith and the modesty that she practices. So she went to the top — and persuaded the International Weightlifting Federation to change its rules.
“I am going to do my best though I will only have had two weeks of preparation since registering,” Abdullah, 35, said prior to the competition. She’s in the 48 kg (105 lbs.) senior women’s weight class. (The Associated Press reported that Abdullah cleared a snatch of 41 kilograms, or just over 90 pounds, and 57 kilograms in the clean and jerk. That earned her a fifth-place finish out of six competitors in her weight class.)
As we reported on June 27, Abdullah only learned she couldn’t compete at the national level when she managed to qualify last fall. USA Weightlifting officials denied her request for alternative dress, because the international body sets rules for competitions that ultimately can lead lifters to Olympic competition.
She didn’t attend the December competition at Cincinnati, but neither did she take no for a final answer. Instead, with the help of a lawyer, she put together a 44-page appeal laying out her argument and detailing several long-sleeved, long-legged garments that would meet both modesty requirements and competitive needs.
Her goal was to illustrate sports gear that would allow judges see if the knees and elbows were in the “locked” position, in order to declare whether the lift was successful.
Abdullah, bolstered by activist women and Muslims, then persuaded the US Olympic Committee to present her case at the International Weightlifting Federation annual meeting in Penang, Malaysia.
Lo and behold, on June 29, the IW agreed with her and announced it would allow a close-fitting “unitard” with long legs and arms under the standard singlet that most competitors wear.
“Weightlifting is an Olympic Sport open for all athletes to participate without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, or national origin,” stated Tamas Ajan, IWF President. “… This rule modification has been considered in the spirit of fairness, equality and inclusion.”
For Abdullah, getting to take part in high level competitions will allow her to focus her training, but she has greater hopes for her triumph over the old dress code:
“It will help increase female participation in weightlifting, and possibly increase the participation in other sports, regardless of faith,” she said. “I hope to continue and be able to help others in similar situations,” she said.