Canadian Sikh boxer strikes blow to beard ban

Citing religious discrimination, man wins the right to fight in this

A Canadian light-flyweight boxer hoping to make it to the Sydney Olympics has thrown his best punch so far - outside the ring.

Pardeep Nagra, a turbaned Sikh who has never shaved, in accordance with his religious beliefs, will be boxing in St. Catharines, Ontario, in a three-day tournament starting today. A Canadian court ordered that Mr. Nagra must be allowed to compete, despite his beard.

This high-profile case is the latest instance of personal religious commitment coming into conflict with the rules of sport.

At the 1924 Paris Olympics, for example, British track star Eric Liddell chose to sit out the 100-meter dash because the heats were held on a Sunday, an incident captured in the movie "Chariots of Fire." Also, in observance of Yom Kippur, Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers refused to pitch on his turn in the 1965 World Series. And for boxers in particular, the struggle to reconcile an inherently violent sport with religious convictions can be severe.

But this is just round one for Nagra. He will have a bigger legal fight on his hands should he qualify for the Olympics.

"It's a good test case for the Olympics," says Anne Lowthian, executive director of the World Sikh Organization in Ottawa.

According to the rules of the Olympic Games, as well as the Canadian Amateur Boxing Association (CABA), athletes must be clean-shaven on the grounds that contact with an opponents' facial hair could lead to injury.

The CABA felt so strongly about sticking to the rule that last month, it canceled competition for the entire light- flyweight division at a tournament in Campbell River, British Columbia, rather than allow Nagra to compete.

Last week Nagra and his lawyer, Chris Leafloor, were able to persuade the Ontario Superior Court to order the CABA to allow the bewhiskered pugilist to compete - as long as he put a hairnet over his beard. They claimed the ban on beards violated Nagra's right to religious liberty under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The court ruling follows two other rulings over the past 2-1/2 years by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which both upheld Nagra's case.

Meanwhile, Nagra's record in the ring is two wins, three losses. This week's competition in St. Catharines, however, gives him a chance to qualify for the Olympic trials to be held Feb. 18 to 19 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

In theory, at least, Nagra's case sets Canada's commitment to a high standard of human rights at odds with its internationalism. The International Amateur Boxing Association (IABA) requires competitors for the summer Olympics to be held in Sydney to be clean-shaven. The CABA is clearly unhappy at having to allow him to compete in contravention of the IABA rules.

"They accepted this with a grudge," says Irvinderpal Singh-Babra, a Toronto-area Sikh editor and publisher.

For the moment, Nagra's case seems to stand alone in the world of amateur sport. In another context, it underscores the challenges of the Sikh community to be fully accepted within multicultural Canada.

"It's a very isolated case," says Hlne Lapointe, spokeswoman of the Canadian Olympic Association in Ottawa. She acknowledges that with the ban on beards in place, "it's limiting the sport to [just] some cultures." Getting the rules changed, though, would require going before the International Olympic Committee - which she says would be tough.

Ms. Lowthian sounds undaunted, however. "We'll go to the UN if we have to." The next step, she says, is to enlist federal government help - that of Sheila Copps, heritage minister, and of Denis Coderre, secretary of state for amateur sport. "We've asked for a meeting, to get together and strategize."

But Mr. Singh-Babra worries aloud that by the time Nagra is finished with his legal fights, he may have missed his chance to participate in the Olympics.

"I'm happy for him that he gets all this publicity, but he has to win inside the ring," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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