Ibti­haj Muham­mad: Proud to be Amer­ica’s first Olympian in a hi­jab

To­day’s fenc­ing will see his­tory made – but some in the US would rather it wasn’t

The Daily Telegraph - Total Football - - RIO 2016 - Jonathan Liew

She was fol­lowed down the street by a man shout­ing that she was ‘go­ing to blow some­thing up’

There are still a few peo­ple out there who claim that Ibti­haj Muham­mad is not truly Amer­i­can, which when you con­sider the facts of the mat­ter is a vaguely lu­di­crous claim. She was born and raised in Maple­wood, New Jer­sey; her fa­ther is a re­tired de­tec­tive and her mother is a teacher. She was a three-time al­lAmer­i­can at Duke Univer­sity and grad­u­ated with a dou­ble ma­jor in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions. She has ap­peared on the Late Show and been name-checked in a speech by Pres­i­dent Obama. She is about to com­pete for Team USA in the Rio Olympics and is spon­sored by a com­pany called Dick’s Sport­ing Goods. Lit­er­ally, how much more Amer­i­can do you want her to be?

But then, if Muham­mad were just your av­er­age Amer­i­can, then you would not be reading about her. She is not the best fencer in the world, or even the best sabre fencer in Amer­ica. But the woman her friends call “Ibti” will be mak­ing his­tory this af­ter­noon, whether she wins a medal or not, when she be­comes the first Amer­i­can Olympian to com­pete wear­ing the Mus­lim hi­jab.

This has made her some­thing of a cause célèbre in the States since she qual­i­fied for the Games in Fe­bru­ary. She was named one of

Time’s 100 most in­flu­en­tial peo­ple of 2016; Late Show host Stephen Col­bert chal­lenged her to a sabre duel in the stu­dio and lost 5-0. In fact, fa­mous peo­ple have been queue­ing up to bat­tle her: she fenced against Michelle Obama as part of the coun­try’s 100-days-togo cel­e­bra­tions.

So far, so pleas­ant. But then you go to the Team USA web­site and read the first com­ment un­der­neath a story about her qual­i­fi­ca­tion, which reads, “What a dis­grace, this is dis­gust­ing”, and you re­mem­ber that this is Amer­ica in 2016, a coun­try where 55 per cent of peo­ple ad­mit to “an un­favourable opin­ion” of Is­lam, and where a man who has made one of his flag­ship poli­cies ban­ning Mus­lims from entering the coun­try is run­ning for pres­i­dent. Yes, this is the Amer­ica of Don­ald Trump now, or at least it is get­ting that way, and this is what makes Muham­mad’s pres­ence such an ir­ri­tant to the un­en­light­ened.

“We have peo­ple in the pres­i­den­tial race who are pro­vid­ing a plat­form for hate speech and fear­mon­ger­ing,” Muham­mad said in a re­cent interview. “When I hear peo­ple here say they want to throw all Mus­lims back to their coun­try, I think: well, where am I go­ing to go? This is my home. I feel Amer­i­can to my bones.”

Even be­ing an Olympian is no in­surance against prej­u­dice. A few days be­fore she crossed swords with the First Lady in Times Square, she was fol­lowed down the street by a man shout­ing that she was go­ing to “blow some­thing up”. And it is a prej­u­dice you oc­ca­sion­ally see mir­rored in the sport­ing world. Sport­ing bod­ies, most of them still mired in Western cul­ture and val­ues, have been lamentably slow to cater for ath­letes of strong re­li­gious faith.

Grow­ing up as a child in New Jer­sey, Muham­mad found her sport­ing op­tions limited. While her high school team-mates wore Span­dex to volleyball prac­tice, Muham­mad would trun­dle along

in track­suit bot­toms. When Ibti was 13, her mother Denise was driv­ing past the lo­cal high school when she saw fenc­ing prac­tice tak­ing place and . re­alised that the full-body suit and face mask would make it an ideal sport for her com­pet­i­tive, sports-mad daugh­ter.

And so Ibti be­gan fenc­ing. She would take the hour-long train from Maple­wood into Man­hat­tan, to be coached by for­mer Olympic bronze medal­list Peter West­brook. But it was not un­til she went to Duke that she fully com­mit­ted to the sport. “There were bar­ri­ers that needed to be bro­ken,” she said. “It’s al­ways been a white sport re­served for peo­ple with money.”

This is a rep­u­ta­tion that clings to fenc­ing, and not with­out rea­son. The cost of equip­ment and elec­tronic scor­ing sys­tems makes it pro­hib­i­tive to most fam­i­lies, while un­til re­cently the sport’s moral code ap­pears to have been de­rived from the Hab­s­burg era. Sabre, the fastest and most vi­o­lent of the fenc­ing dis­ci­plines, was off-lim­its to women at the Olympics un­til 2004.

So Muham­mad worked as a fenc­ing coach and a sup­ply teacher to fund her ca­reer. She set up an on­line cloth­ing bou­tique ded­i­cated to “mod­est fash­ion”. On the piste, she ini­tially found things tough­go­ing. Most elite fencers be­gin when they are seven or younger, and are fun­nelled through a gilded ap­pa­ra­tus of fin­ish­ing schools and in­ter­na­tional ju­nior tour­na­ments.

Muham­mad had none of that. She was a rel­a­tively late de­vel­oper – this will be her first Olympics at the age of 30 – and has bridged the gap with the help of a bru­tal fit­ness regime and sheer hard work. She will com­pete in to­day’s in­di­vid­ual event and the team com­pe­ti­tion with dou­ble Olympic cham­pion Mariel Za­gu­nis.

The lat­ter of­fers a de­cent chance of a medal, and with it an­other blow in the fight to re­shape crooked per­cep­tions of Mus­lims. Muham­mad takes the tra­di­tional stereo­types of Mus­lim women and slashes them to bits. She is vo­cal, opin­ion­ated, com­pet­i­tive, unashamed of her beauty. And now she is com­pet­ing in the big­gest sport­ing event on Earth in front of an au­di­ence of bil­lions. Never let any­one tell you the Olympics don’t mean any­thing.

Pa­triot games: ‘I feel Amer­i­can to my bones,’ says Ibti­haj Muham­mad

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