Hijab-wearing basketball referee out to blaze trail at Tokyo Olympics

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(NEW YORK) — For Sarah Gamal, the significance of being the first hijab-wearing basketball referee to take part in the Olympic Games goes well beyond the court.

The Egyptian referee and 3-on-3 basketball will both make their Olympic debuts in Tokyo next week after the International Olympic Committee approved the addition of the fast-paced version of the popular sport four years ago.

Gamal will be making some history of her own though. When she takes the court in Tokyo, she will be the first Olympic basketball referee to do so wearing a hijab.

She made her breakthrough into the sport’s top level when the International Basketball Federation changed its rules on headgear in 2017, effectively lifting a ban on the Islamic headscarf.

The 32-year-old has officiated at several international tournaments since then, but making her Olympic bow has an added significance as she seeks to blaze a trail for other veiled referees to follow.

“Thankfully, many hijab-wearing referees who had doubts over whether to continue their careers are now reassured,” Gamal told ABC News. “In the past, many thought they would never be able to take charge of international games, and that they would only be restricted to local matches.”

“But now I’m happy to have played a part in making the difference,” she continued. “Veiled referees now have every reason to believe that they can take their careers to the international level. Many have called me to say they were encouraged to follow suit.”

Gamal takes charge of men’s and women’s games, moving up and down the court wearing a black veil to go with the traditional basketball refereeing uniform. She will be the only African and Arab referee at the 3-on-3 basketball contest in Tokyo.

Her first overseas venture after FIBA changed the headgear rules was in July 2017 when she took part in the Francophone Games in the Ivory Coast. She has not looked back, continuing to referee games at the highest level.

“I was worried at the time that I could receive any negative feedback, but all the comments I got were positive and supportive. There were no difficulties at all,” Gamal said. “My target at the Olympics is the same of the other 12 referees at 3-on-3; we are all looking forward to projecting a good image for referees on the tournament’s first Olympic appearance.”

“On the personal level, I’m representing the Arab world and Africa to I want to appear in the best possible shape,” she added.

The 3-on-3 version of basketball is played on a half-court with one basket. The first team to reach 21 points wins the game, but if neither reaches that mark after 10 minutes, the team that is ahead is declared the winner.

The men’s and women’s tournaments are comprised of eight teams each and is played in a round-robin format.

Gamal, who was born in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, started playing basketball at the age of 5 before becoming a referee when she turned 15.

She works a day job as a civil engineer in Egypt’s second-largest city, but Gamal described basketball as an essential part of her life.

“Featuring in the Olympics is a dream, but it will not end there. I want to take part in more Olympic Games and world championships,” she said.

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