ATHENS, Aug. 20 -- In a nearly empty Olympic Stadium Friday morning, a woman wearing a track singlet over a traditional Muslim hijab, its white hood imprinted with the flag of Bahrain, set a national record in the 100-meter qualifying heats. So did a woman from Afghanistan, the first to represent her nation in the Olympics, who ran in loose-fitting pants and a T-shirt and finished 62nd out of 63 competitors.
A woman from the island nation of Kiribati who trains in bare feet on crushed coral set a personal best wearing shiny new track spikes. A woman from Somalia, who competed in long pants and with a traditional scarf over her head, finished in the slowest time of the morning, 14.29 seconds, more than three seconds behind the top finishers.
The women's 100 meters featured 63 entrants from 52 countries, some of whom competed in traditional Muslim head scarves.
(David Gray -- Reuters)
It was the fastest race she had ever run.
For a couple dozen women from small or troubled nations, the Olympic competition began and ended with the heats of the 100 meters, the most international and democratic of events. The 63 entrants in the women's competition represented 52 different nations. While the fastest women here ran easily, trying to conserve their energy for the later rounds, the slowest ran their hearts out, chasing goals incomprehensible to most of the others in the field.
"I hope I can open the way for Afghan women," Robina Muqim Yaar said through an interpreter after finishing in 14.14 seconds. "This is the first step, and I'm really happy for that. Even if I were 18 meters back from the others, it was really, really great. I'm very happy because it was in the Olympic Games."
There are more women here than at any previous Olympics. Forty-one percent of the 11,047 athletes are female, compared to 38 percent of the approximately 10,500 at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney. Increased participation, fueled in part by funding from the International Olympic Committee, has turned the 100 meters into a festival of diversity. Women introduced to athletics a year or two before the Games might struggle to meet Olympic qualification standards in swimming, gymnastics or soccer, but, with some training, anyone can run.
"It's very important they are here," said Belgium's Kim Gevaert, the eighth-fastest qualifier in 11.18 seconds. "The Olympics should be a big fiesta for all the countries, not just certain parts of the world."
At the first Summer Games organized under the leadership of a woman, Athens 2004 President Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, women are competing in Olympic wrestling for the first time, and they lead off the running of the marathon on the ancient route Sunday. At Wednesday's shot put competition, women competed on the hallowed grounds of Olympia -- site of the ancient Games, where once only men competed.
Afghanistan, Kuwait and Kiribati sent female athletes to the Games for the first time.
"The power of Olympic ideals grow when those ideals are more broadly and equitably shared," Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said through a spokeswoman. "I am delighted that these Games have set new participation records for women. . . . The ethic of inclusion benefits us all."
Leading up to the Games, Yaar said, she trained on a cracked concrete track in the dilapidated Kabul stadium, wearing street shoes or sandals. Prior to the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, she said, she had no opportunity to compete in sports of any kind.
She said she had been urged to wear pants to show respect for Islam, and that she would gladly have covered her head if asked.
"I'm very proud of that," she said. "I'm respecting my people and I respect my culture."
Her race Friday provided an unexpected dose of satisfaction; she finished ahead of Fartun Abukar Omar of Somalia.
"At least I was ahead of one person," Yaar, 18, said. "I think I did pretty well. I will never, ever forget this moment. . . . I'm sure if I get the facilities [in Afghanistan], I will win at least one medal in the Olympic Games in 2008."
Yaar said she was honored to run in the same heat as American Gail Devers, a former gold medal winner in the event. Veronica Campbell of Jamaica apparently shared the same feelings about Yaar. After the race, Campbell sought out Yaar and asked her to pose for a photograph.
"That," Yaar said, "was a great moment for me."
Iraq's Alaa Jassim grinned widely and talked excitedly in Arabic about running her best race ever shortly after finishing in 12.70 seconds, the 52nd-best time of the day. She said she felt she had represented her country well.
"I feel I am representing all of the Iraqi people, not just the women," said Jassim, 18, through an interpreter. "I started training for these Olympics in March, but because of the situation there, I couldn't train as well as I wanted to. If it was possible, I would have trained five to six times a week, but because of the bombs and explosions I often could not."
Kiribati's Kaitinano Mwemweata, 20, told a far different story. There is no danger in Kiribati, a country in the South Pacific made up of 33 islands. But little comes easy there. In Butaritari, the island on which she grew up, there are fewer than 10 television sets and no phones. Only 2,000 people live in the main city. She lived in a house her father and grandfather built out of wood and pandnus leaves.
In preparation for the Olympics, she has been training only twice a week for an hour. She began preparing just three months ago, and spends most of her time attending classes at a university. During training sessions, she and about a dozen others run in bare feet on a coral track whose lanes are demarcated with coral. She had never worn a pair of track spikes before receiving a pair for the Olympics from her federation.
She said she didn't know the name of a single other athlete here, except for U.S. sprinter Marion Jones.
The athletes' village "is bigger than our village," Mwemweata said. "Our country on the map is only a point."
It took more than 36 hours for Mwemweata and her two teammates to arrive here from Tarawa, the nation's capital, after a five-leg flight to Athens through Nikunau, Kiribati; Brisbane, Australia; Singapore; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Cyprus.
The long trip, she said, has been more than worth it.
"This is the Kiribati dream," she said. "I'm the first Olympian from my country. . . . I'm proud to be here."