INCHEON, South Korea (AP) — Before all the attention generated by the Qatari women's team withdrawing from the Asian Games basketball competition due to a ban on head coverings in competition, the Indian men's team faced a similar predicament.
Captain Amritpal Singh and Amjyot Singh had to remove their turbans to play at the Asia Cup in July, when the head coverings regulations came into international focus. They decided to cut their hair ahead of the Asian Games, which meant they didn't have to wear turbans as required by their Sikh religion.
The controversial FIBA rule that prohibits the use of headgear, hair accessories, and jewelry in international competition hit the headlines again this week when players on the Qatari women's team refused to remove their hijab for their first match against Mongolia on Wednesday. The Qatari team withdrew from the women's basketball team altogether a day later, after failing to have the ban overturned.
Players on the Indian men's team opted for an alternative solution.
"We had four Sikh players in the side, with the two of them regularly playing all our matches," team official Divya Singh told The Associated Press on Thursday. "But since Amritpal and Amjyot had cut their hair and did not wear turbans, we did not face any problems regarding the rules."
Sikh men traditionally grow their hair and need to cover their heads with a turban.
But sportsmen wear a lighter version of the turban called a 'patka' that covers the head with a thin cloth rather than the thicker turbans used in everyday life. Sikhs tie their hair beneath the turbans, although it's not unheard of for athletes to cut their hair.
For Amritpal, the decision was not easy.
"Of course, it was not a good feeling to get my hair cut for this reason," Amritpal told The AP. "But then, it had come to a point where I had to take a call. After all, it was a matter of continuing playing basketball or not. What else could I have done?"
The India captain said his parents and relatives were opposed to him breaking with tradition, and it took a lot of convincing on his part before he could get their approval.
"It was natural for them to feel bad because it's a matter of our religion. But I had to make them understand what basketball meant to me and they agreed rather reluctantly," Amritpal said.
The Indian men's team was knocked out in the league phase at the Asian Games with consecutive losses to Iran and the Philippines.
The dispute over the Qatari players' refusal to remove their hijabs — regarded by some as a rule that discriminates against Muslim women — has created a major stir at the games and raised new questions about rules banning the head coverings.
Individual sports are governed by their respective international bodies with disciplines like shooting, badminton, track and field events and even football allowing hijabs.