At Mediterranean Games, sport trumps clash of civilizations

Rafika Dakhlauoi beams when the judges hang the bronze medal for women's karate around her neck. She runs to hug her coach and teammates. After sipping a Coke, she turns to a reporter. "I'm so, so happy," she says. "I want to thank God for helping me." Then she gracefully ties her head scarf around her black hair.

Ms. Dakhlauoi's triumph - and cultural adaptability - underscore the purpose of the Mediterranean Games.

They were established in 1951 to bring together Western and Muslim athletes in sport. True, in a post-9/11 atmosphere of religious intolerance and fundamentalist violence, emblems like the head scarves worn by some Muslim women here have not gone unnoticed.

Yet this week's games in southern Spain also offer a reminder that, however politically charged sports have been at particular moments in history, more often than not athletic competition creates its own inclusive culture.

After being eliminated in the first round of women's beach volleyball, Necla Glücü sat in the bleachers chewing bubble gum.

As Queen's 1980s rock anthem, "We are the Champions," blared from the speakers, Ms. Glücü, wearing a bikini that showcased her tattoos, applied suntan lotion to a body that would fit right in on California's Venice Beach.

She seemed surprised by the idea that anyone would expect her to act any other way. "There's no problem in Turkey with bikinis," she says. "We're a modern country."

Dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, Moroccan Latifa Sekkou, who competed in women's karate, sat alone in the bleachers after her match, reading and sending text messages from her cellphone.

She says that she feels no discrimination as a woman. "Our government is as interested in female athletes as it is in male ones," Sekkou says. "We're a democracy."

To be sure, there are important differences among the nations as well as the athletes competing at these games.

Europe's big three - France, Spain, and Italy - have garnered a disproportionate number of medals; as of Wednesday morning, each had surpassed 75, while the nearest runner-up, Turkey, had only 37.

Most attribute this gap to differences in government funding. José Fernández Flores, a sportswriter for the local Diario de Almería paper, puts it bluntly: "The stronger countries invest much more in sports than the others."

Glücü is similarly candid on this point: "We have a lot of good players in Turkey, but it's money that counts."

Athletes from Muslim countries also face other challenges unknown to their Western counterparts.

Egyptian Salama Ismail, who finished last in the first women's 200-meter breaststroke heat on Sunday morning, notes that her country's educational demands make it virtually impossible to succeed in both school and sports.

"You can't really do both in Egypt," the college-aged swimmer says. "I just finished my exams last week."

That obstacle is, in part, why Tunisian swimmer Oussama Mellouli, who has won three gold medals so far at these games, moved to the United States three years ago to swim at the University of Southern California.

"In Tunisia, once you get to be college-aged, you either have to drop school or drop swimming," he says.

Some critics contend that sports' shared culture is really a Western, or, more specifically, American, creation.

Fahd Chafik, sportswriter for the English-language Moroccan Times, observes that the degree to which a North African athlete adopts the trappings of American culture generally depends on that player's sport and background.

"Our basketball players dress like Americans, listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and stay up late to watch the NBA playoffs," Mr. Chafik says.

"But our wrestlers, who usually come from poorer backgrounds, are more Moroccan. They tend to listen to Rai [a North African musical form] and Chaabi [a Moroccan form]."

The financial influence the US wields internationally through its successful professional leagues probably has much to do with this distinction. Yet even those athletes who immerse themselves in the US-fashioned "common" culture of a given sport lay claim to a separate, Muslim identity.

Women's karate bronze winner Dakhlauoi would like to see the rules changed that require her to remove her headscarf in competition. "Psychologically, it's very hard to take off," Dakhlauoi says. "It's part of who I am."

Even Mr. Mellouli, the Tunisian swimmer who speaks flawless American English, says that while "Western culture is everywhere, my belief is the same and Islam is my religion. Nothing is going to change that, and that's what gives me the strength to keep going."

Ms. Ismail, the Egyptian swimmer, offered a practical approach to maintaining this fragile balance between sports camaraderie and religious identity.

"Some people in Egypt have a problem with girls swimming competitively," she says. "But I'm young. I have the rest of my life to be religious."

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