Ibtihaj Muhammad Would Have Been Perfect Flag Bearer for a Divided US

Rio de Janeiro 07 Dzulqa’dah 1437/10 August 2016  (MINA)  – She could have marched through the tunnel on Friday night in a hijab, clutching the American flag. What a moment that would have been for a United States where tolerance has been drowned out by political pomposity.

Ibtihaj Muhammad wouldn’t have had to say a word as her country’s flag bearer during the opening ceremonies of the Rio Olympics. The image of a Muslim fencer leading more than 500 Americans into the world’s greatest sporting event would be a statement more potent than any of the invective spilling from Donald Trump’s curled lips.

That the US athletes reportedly made her the second choice to Michael Phelps as flag bearer shows how much they understand the need to show the world that they do not come from a place where intolerance is a virtue,  according to the guardian.com.

Olympians tend be more worldly and aware of such issues than most sports stars, and most do not live in the bubble that many highly paid professional athletes inhabit. They compete overseas, regularly exposed to new cultures, people and ideas.

Muhammad is the ideal of today’s America, a place where a girl from New Jersey can grow up with an Olympic dream and make it come true despite whatever voices hiss in disdain at the sight of her competing in a hijab.

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For a world that must wonder if the US has gone mad in an election year where a candidate has whipped up a frenzy of fear around anyone who doesn’t look like him, the best message the US could have sent was putting Muhammad at the front of its delegation on Friday night.

In any other Olympics, in any other year, Phelps would have been the perfect choice. He is perhaps the greatest American Olympian ever, having won 18 gold medals.

He also has a wonderful story of redemption behind him; the champion who won big when he was young, stumbled through a series of missteps including an arrest for driving while intoxicated, only to rise from the darkness as a changed man.

When he spoke at a press conference here on Thursday, he was eloquent in a way nobody could have imagined back when he was winning all those golds in Beijing, glowering at the acclaim that appeared to overwhelm him.

He said he wept when he was told he had been picked to carry the flag on Friday night. America’s Olympians should be proud to have him stand before them.


Olympic has always been political

But this is not any other Olympics in any other year. This is an Olympics where the world needs to see what the US truly stands for.

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Is it the country of which Trump speaks, one terrified of a veil on a woman’s head? Or is it the land where any child believes they can be something big regardless of race, class or religion? Compared to Phelps, who at 31 is a year older than her, Muhammad has won nothing.

She is competing in her first Olympics and is not expected to win a gold medal. Her stay in the Rio spotlight may be brief, but the image of her competing in a hijab could linger much longer than the montage of medalists wrapping themselves in the US flag.

There are many who say that politics don’t belong in the Olympics. Undoubtedly, that sentiment factored into the decision of some athletes to vote for Phelps.

But the Olympics have always been political. All you have to do is see the miles of cars gridlocked here, as roads are blocked to facilitate the free movement of International Olympic Committee officials; or ride the sparkling new subway line from one rich community to another, built at outrageous cost with no benefit to Rio’s working class. The Olympics are very much a political place.

The US Olympic Committee understands this. That is why it spent considerable time and money this summer training US athletes to avoid insulting Rio or Brazil.

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It understands the US, as one of the world’s great powers, is perhaps the most visible country here. It realizes its actions are the country’s actions. There is no such thing as an invisible American athlete at an Olympics. And Ibtihaj Muhammad does not want to be invisible.

“It’s a tough political environment we are in right now. I think Muslims are under the microscope and I’m hoping to change the image of what people may have of Muslim women,” she said at the US Olympic Summit in March.


An opportunity was lost

Muhammad said that day that she never once questioned herself as an American despite growing anti-Muslim rhetoric in the US. “This is my home, my family has always been here, and it’s a part of who I am and it’s all I know,” she said.

The world needs to see Ibtihaj Muhammad. It needs to know that she is what America is: an improbable self-made success.

The US athletes made a safe choice in Phelps as their flag bearer. An appropriate choice.

Only this time, for this Olympics, they didn’t make the best choice. An opportunity was lost. (T/R07/R01)

Mi’raj Islamic News Agency (MINA)