The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, will go down in history as the Games of Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and Simone Biles — in that or some other order.
Bolt, the 30-year-old Jamaican sprinter, was flawless in winning three gold medals in what he called his Olympic finale. Phelps, the 31-year-old American swimmer, won five golds and a silver in what he called his career finale. Biles, the 19-year-old American gymnast, won four golds and a bronze in her Olympic debut.
Each athlete is currently being hailed as the greatest performer in the history of their respective sports, and each of them commanded the world stage when it was their time to shine.
But of course, the marquee attractions were not the only athletes making headlines in Rio.
From the track oval to the taekwondo octagon, a number of Muslim athletes experienced the thrills of victory and the agonies of defeat like so many others in these Olympics. Some cemented their legacies as all-time greats in their sport. Others damaged their reputations as world-class competitors.
Here are the best and worst stories from the Rio Olympics involving Muslim athletes:
She made history as the first Olympic athlete to represent the United States while wearing a hijab headscarf. With that power came the responsibility of being a global ambassador for Muslim Americans, and essentially a mainstream token for an oppressed minority group in a country that is oppressive to many minority groups.
Muhammad, 30, handled the responsibility admirably, and ended up being one of the stars of the Olympics.
Although she was eliminated in the second round of the individual sabre fencing competition — something of an upset since she was ranked No. 8 in the world in that event — Muhammad did earn a bronze medal in the team competition with U.S. teammates Monica Aksamit, Dagmara Wozniak and Mariel Zagunis.
The Handshake Refusal
It’s not a new story; athletes from Muslim-majority countries in Africa and the Middle East refusing to either compete against or show common competitive courtesies to athletes from Israel. Given the history of political tensions, bloody military conflicts and genocidal actions acts committed by Israel in Palestinian territories, some would say it’s even understandable.
But this is the Olympics. This is supposed to be the stage on which politics are put aside in the spirit of good sportsmanship. There was no greater example of that in Rio than the selfie seen ’round the world taken by South Korean gymnast Lee Eun Ju alongside North Korean gymnast Hong Un Jong.
On the other side of the spectrum, Egyptian judo competitor Islam El Shehaby created a controversy when he refused to shake hands with Israel’s Or Sasson after losing their first-round match.
Fans in the judo arena booed El Shehaby. The International Olympic Committee reprimanded him, and the Egyptian federation reportedly sent him home early. Sasson went on to earn a bronze medal. El Shehaby, a nine-time African champion and 2010 world championship bronze medalist in the men’s over-100-kilogram (220-pound) division, has reportedly decided to retire from judo.
“Shaking the hand of your opponent is not an obligation written in the judo rules. It happens between friends and he’s not my friend,” El Shehaby, 32, was quoted by Reuters. “I have no problem with Jewish people or any other religion or different beliefs. But for personal reasons, you can’t ask me to shake the hand of anyone from this State, especially in front of the whole world.”
I’m not going to pretend to understand the pressure El Shehaby was under to not even compete against his Israeli opponent in the first place. (Fans on social media were reportedly urging El Shehaby to bow out of the match.) Literally forfeiting your opportunity to win an Olympic medal in order to stand up for a principle you believe in is undeniably a tough decision, irrespective of who agrees or disagrees with that principle.
But my take is that if you are OK with competing against someone, you should also be OK with showing them the common competitive courtesies of your chosen sport. No one said you have to be genuine about it. Just do it. If you don’t, it’s a worse look on you than it is on the opponent.
Plus, I can’t shake the feeling that El Shehaby’s refusal to shake hands was at least partially related to his obvious frustration over losing the match. Which may be less principled, but more understandable on one level.
Compared to the amount of attention paid to fellow Muslim American athlete Ibtihaj Muhammad, 26-year-old sprint hurdler Dalilah Muhammad was virtually a no-name going into the Olympics despite being a former world championship silver medalist. But she certainly made a name for herself by winning the gold medal in the women’s 400-meter hurdles.
There has been criticism from within and outside the Muslim community suggesting Dalilah Muhammad did not get as much media coverage and fan support as Ibtihaj Muhammad because she does not compete or make public appearances wearing hijab.
While it is true that Muslim women who don’t cover are often treated like outsiders by their own people — some even go as far as accusing them of not being “real” Muslims — I honestly don’t think the lack of attention paid to Dalilah Muhammad before her big victory was about any of that.
I think it had more to do with a lot of media and fans simply not knowing that Dalilah Muhammad is Muslim.
I make it my business with Ummah Sports to research athletes and dig into their lives enough to find out whether or not they’re Muslim. Due to her last name, I did some research on Dalilah Muhammad after she qualified for the Olympics in July, and at the time I couldn’t find any proof that she was Muslim. Believe me: If I had found proof, I would’ve given an Olympic gold-medal favorite in a sport I follow closely a lot of coverage. Just like I’ve given Tunisian distance runner Habiba Ghribi — another Muslim female track athlete who doesn’t compete in hijab — a lot of coverage.
It wasn’t until after Dalilah Muhammad’s gold-medal victory that her background and personal life drew more interest from the media and fans. A local New York news station interview with her parents discussing her faith had been released during the Olympics, but didn’t get much traction until after Muhammad’s gold-medal victory.
Now, back to the historic athletic accomplishment of this Muslim sister.
Muhammad came into the Olympics with a world-leading time this season of 52.88 seconds in the 400-meter hurdles. (The Olympic record is 52.64 seconds by Jamaica’s Melaine Walker in 2008, and the world record is 52.34 seconds by Russia’s Yuliya Pechenkina in 2003.) In Rio, Muhammad comfortably won her opening heat and her semifinal races.
In the final, Muhammad started fast and took the lead early, then held off the field to finish in 53.13 seconds, ahead of silver medalist Sara Petersen of Denmark and bronze medalist Ashley Spencer of the U.S. With the victory, Muhammad became the first American woman to win gold in the Olympic 400-meter hurdles.
The Agony Of The Feet
“Taekwondo” translates in Korean to “The way of the foot and the hand.” But if you’ve ever watched competitive taekwondo, you know that kicks are the overwhelming strike of choice. The first time I watched taekwondo, it reminded me of boxing with one’s feet.
Lutalo Muhammad, a Muslim representing Great Britain, suffered what had to be the single most crushing loss by any athlete at the Rio Olympics in the gold-medal match of the taekwondo men’s 80-kilogram (176-pound) division.
With 20 seconds remaining in the gold-medal match, Muhammad took a 6-4 lead over Cheick Sallah Cisse of the Ivory Coast (who might also be Muslim, but I haven’t found any convincing evidence other than his country’s approximately 40 percent Muslim population). Cisse scored one point with literally one second remaining in the match to make it 6-5, and then incredibly landed a buzzer-beating kick to the head to score three points and an improbable victory.
Cisse’s wild victory lap around the arena before collapsing onto the mat was one of the most memorable celebrations of the Olympics. Muhammad could only stand in stunned silence after the gold medal he had in the bad turned to silver.
Muhammad, 25, earned a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics and was ranked No. 4 in the world in his weight class coming into Rio. He was seen as a strong gold-medal contender. Instead, his experience lands on the list of sports’ most agonizing last-minute kick-related losses, along with the 2013 Alabama-Auburn “Kick Six” football game and the 2014 Germany-Argentina FIFA World Cup final.
“I’m so distraught,” Muhammad was quoted by BBC Sport after the loss. “I was so close to becoming Olympic champion and making my dream. I don’t want to cry but I am so sorry to the people that stayed up to watch. I let them down at the last second. This is so hard.
“I am absolutely gutted to blow it like that,” he went on. “I’ll have to wait four years for another chance. It’s one of the low points of my life.”
Mo Farah’s Double-Double
At most, only three track and field athletes were expected to win gold medals in multiple individual events at the Rio Olympics.
One was Usain Bolt, who of course delivered on those expectations. The other two were Ethiopian female distance runner Almaz Ayana and British male distance runner Mo Farah, each favored to win both the 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter races.
Ayana set a new world record on her way to winning the women’s 10,000 meters but fell to third place and the bronze medal in the 5,000 meters.
Farah, a 33-year-old Muslim, not only won both of his races but also completed a “double-double” by winning the same two races he won at the 2012 London Olympics.
With six laps remaining in the 12.5-lap 5,000-meter final, Farah was tucked into the middle of the pack of 15 runners. A lap later, he’d surged to the lead. In the final lap, for which the real medal contenders pretty much sprinted all throughout, Farah pulled away to win comfortably.
That was easy in comparison to the 10,000-meter final, when Farah was tripped and fell onto the track into a stampede of runners early into the 25-lap race. He got up and eventually won that race too.
The gold-medal repeat put Farah in the company of racing legend Lasse Viren of Finland, the only other man to win the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races at consecutive Olympics. Viren accomplished the feat in 1972 and 1976.
‘Iranian Hercules’ drops the bar
The weightlifting competition provided surprises across both genders and in almost every weight class. Perhaps the biggest surprise involved Iran’s Behdad Salimi, a.k.a. “Iranian Hercules,” the favorite to win gold in the men’s over-105-kilogram (231-pound) or “super heavyweight” division.
On his third attempt in the snatch portion, the defending Olympic champion Salimi hoisted 216 kilograms (476 pounds) over his head to set a new world record; not just for his weight class, but overall.
But in the clean-and-jerk portion, Salimi failed on all three of his attempts at 245 kilograms (540 pounds). On his second attempt, he had the bar above his head and was given the approval of all three judges for a good lift. But moments later, the lift was reviewed and rejected.
According to an NBC television analyst, Salimi’s elbows weren’t locked. They appeared locked to me, and apparently they did to the three judges on first glance. Anyway, Salimi had to go back out and — probably since he’d just recently put 540 pounds over his head — couldn’t do it again. Just like that, his Olympics were over. The two-time world champion finished 20th in a monumental upset.
While “Iranian Hercules” didn’t get the gold medal many expected he would, Iran still won three golds in Rio — two in weightlifting and one in freestyle wrestling.
The country’s newest champion wrestler is 21-year-old Hassan Yazdani, whose victory over Russia’s Aniuar Geduev in the men’s freestyle 74-kilogram (163-pound) division was the most dramatic wrestling match of the entire Olympics.
Geduev pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the Games when he beat top-ranked Jordan Burroughs of the U.S., the defending Olympic gold medalist, in the quarterfinals. (Burroughs hadn’t lost a match since 2014.) But on his way to the final, Geduev suffered a cut on his head that required constant attention — his gold-medal match with Yazdani was stopped at least three times so the Russian’s coaches could re-bandage the wound.
Despite looking like Bronko Nagurski due to all the extra tape and bandages, Geduev built a 6-0 lead over the Iranian. With one minute to go in the match, Yazdani had cut the lead to 6-4. With 25 seconds to go, a Russian coach threw a challenge marker into the ring, believing Geduev hadn’t been given points he deserved. The challenge was thrown back. With about five seconds to go, Yazdani scored a two-point takedown to tie it at six. And when time expired, because he had the tiebreaker of scoring the last point, Yazdani was declared the winner.
After cruising through his first three matches and beating his opponents by an combined score of 27-0, stopping two of them early, Yazdani faced his toughest test for the biggest stakes and came out a winner in dramatic fashion.
Bad Boxing Decisions
Change was supposed to make things better for Olympic boxing in 2016. Professional fighters were allowed to participate. Headgear was eliminated for the men’s tournaments. Scoring would be done on the pro-style “10-point must” system.
Three pros entered, however the famous one — Cameroon’s 32-year-old former middle weight champion Hassan N’Dam — was eliminated in the first round with little fanfare. The lack of headgear worked in the sense that boxers were more relatable and there seemed to be more knockdowns and knockouts.
But questionable scoring, bad decisions and accusations of corrupt judging will probably always be a part of boxing, whether it’s the pros or the Olympics.
A couple of weeks into the Rio boxing tournaments, the New York Times reported that several referees and judges had been removed from the Olympics due to some bad decisions, and that allegations of corruption had been made. Although no judges’ decisions were reversed and no official appeals filed, there was plenty of grumbling about scoring in Rio. If nothing else, it cast an unwelcome pall over Olympic boxing yet again.
One of the most controversial decisions of the Olympics was light-welterweight Fazliddin Gaibnazarov of Uzbekistan’s decision victory over Gary Russell of the U.S. in the quarterfinals. None other than Rio ringside observer Floyd Mayweather Jr. — who was himself denied a shot at a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics thanks to one of the worst decisions in Olympic history — said Russell was “robbed, clearly.” I watched the fight too, and I thought Russell won two of the three rounds against Gaibnazarov, who went on to win a gold medal.
Four male boxers from Muslim-majority countries won gold in Rio: Gaibnazarov, flyweight Shakhobidin Zoirov and light-flyweight Hasanboy Dusmatov of Uzbekistan; and welterweight Daniyar Yeleussinov of Kazakhstan. Five won silver medals: Heavyweight Vasiliy Levit of Kazakhstan, light-heavyweight Adilbek Niyazymbetov of Kazakhstan, middleweight Bektemir Melikuziev of Uzbekistan, welterweight Shakhram Giyasov of Uzbekistan and light-welterweight Lorenzo Sotomayor of Azerbaijan. Six boxers from Muslim-majority countries earned bronze medals, including one female, middleweight Dariga Shakimova of Kazakhstan.
Hijab unrelated to Ibtihaj
The American fencer was not the only Muslim female athlete in Rio competing in a hijab headscarf, nor was she the only one to stand on the medal podium.
Egyptian weightlifter Sara Ahmed won a bronze medal. Hedaya Malak of Egypt and Kimia Alizadeh of Iran both won bronzes in taekwondo.
Two of the most talked-about hijabis not named Ibtihaj ran on the first day of track and field competition in the 100-meter dash.
Kariman Abuljadayel of Saudi Arabia ran a national-record time of 14.61 seconds, and Kamia Yousufi of Afghanistan also set a national record with her time of 14.02 seconds. Neither advanced to the next round of heats.
Ayesha Al Balooshi of the United Arab Emirates competed in weightlifting in hijab. Houleye Ba of Mauritania ran the 800 meters in hijab. Sarah Attar of Saudi Arabia, who wore a hijab headscarf when she ran the 800 meters at the 2012 London Olympics, ran in the women’s marathon in Rio while wearing long sleeves and a baseball cap.
Two more Muslim female athletes at these Olympics were put up as part of a contrast between cultures that was built for Internet memes. In the women’s beach volleyball tournament, Egyptian teammates Doaa Elghobashy and Nada Meawad competed in modest gear while their opponents wore bikinis. Both Egyptians wore long sleeves and pants, and Elghobashy wore a headscarf.
The Armed Robbery That Wasn’t
The biggest scandal and most ridiculous story of the Rio Olympics did not involve any Muslim athletes.
I just have to wonder, though …
A foursome of White male U.S. swimmers led by star Ryan Lochte partied late, got drunk, destroyed property at a gas station bathroom, fought with a security guard and then lied to everyone (including Brazilian police) by fabricating a story about being robbed at gunpoint.
While the swimmers have received their share of social media ridicule, and the U.S. Olympic committee has vowed to take further action, there is also a noticeable segment of society taking a “boys will be boys,” “let’s not overreact” stance that smacks of White privilege and messed-up Western values about behavior in a foreign country.
But what if, instead of Lochte and Co., the group in question had been four Muslim men from the Iranian wrestling team, or the Nigerian basketball team, or the Indonesian weightlifting team? Would the tone of media and public reaction have been just a bit different?