Muslim Athletes at the Olympics; Why we are making a big deal

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics put several Muslim athletes in the spotlight. Both and male and female Olympians from around the world made their names known with excellent performance. But what’s the big deal? What does religion have to do with athletic ability? Absolutely nothing! Somehow though, people tend to relate our (Muslim) faith to everything we do. Success, failure, strength, weakness, achievements, setbacks, love, hate, peace, war, etc.

In an article by Khaled Beydoun (2016); Muslim athlete’s Olympic excellence shuts down stereotypes and prejudices, he brings to light the fears that many people had prior to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. With many Arabs and Muslims gathering in large numbers (athletes and spectators), there was a fear of becoming victims of terrorist attacks.

More than a week into the 2016 Games, fears of a terror attack have been eclipsed by the athletic exploits of Muslim athletes, and the prevailing stereotypes attached to that looming threat were outpaced by the images of Muslim excellence.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics put the spotlight on not just excellent Muslim athletes but Hijabi female athletes. There was more athletes accepting hardware in their hijabs than in any other Olympic year. Now again, what does it matter if the athlete is a hijabi or not? Why do we make a big deal about it?

Again as I mentioned, the fact that these athletes wear the hijab has nothing to do with their athletic ability. It’s far greater than that. Think about every stereotype that anyone would curate in their minds about Muslim women and those athletes shatter them all. For Muslims and Non-Muslims, seeing veiled athletes take to the podium has a great influence on their views of Muslim women in general.

“Muslim”- “Female”- “Hijabi”- “Arab”; these adjectives would usually string together to mean “meak”, “oppressed”, “subservient”, “obedient”; at least that’s the stereotype. BUT as a young Muslim girl watches Olympian Feryal Ashraf accept a GOLD medal in KARATE proudly wearing her hijab she may see that those adjectives are just intersections; parts of her but not all that defines her. Her faith and her choice to express it openly are no longer seen as barriers for her.

We can not forget that privilege plays a big part in the ability of a young athlete to become an Olympian. No matter which country they come from, they have been granted some sort of privilege. Privileges come in different forms. They can be God-given like skin color and gender or worldly like education, socio-economic status, education, resources, etc. Not everyone has the time, finances, and opportunities to access the best coaches and training required to reach levels such as the Olympics. Although athletic skill is something one is born with the opportunity to take those skills and build on them with world-renowned coaching, and guidance is a totally different story.

The hijab appearing in a worldwide event like the Olympics with international media coverage and people tuning in from all over the world speaks about the movement towards acceptance and respect given for personal choices. Hijabi women are the face of Islam. Their visibility grabs the attention and has people paying even closer attention to their behaviors, and their achievements. It’s these observations that people build their views of ALL Muslim women or at least alter their current beliefs.

With so much anti-hijab rhetoric popping up around the world, including hijab bans, and discrimination towards Muslim women, the 2020 Olympics was just what we needed. It was proof that one’s faith, and one’s commitment to their country as well as their success as an athlete can exist in parallel.

The greatest, most powerful example of this was fencer Ibtihaj Muhammed. Although she did not compete in the Tokyo 202 Olympics she made her name in Rio during the 2016 Olympics. She was the first Muslim African – American hijabi to compete on Team USA and she did not disappoint. She made all Muslims proud as she took home the Bronze Medal. Since her Olympic success, she has gone on to be an author, public speaker and influencer.

"I have unofficially hung up my sabre,” Muhammad said. “I feel really content with my career and where I am right now in my life. You know, fencing is not a big part of it anymore, but it’s always been my intention to transcend sport in a way that reaches people not just in the fencing world but outside of it. I think I’ve been able to best do that, not only representing my sport but representing myself.”

Team Egypt has much to be proud of with two female hijabi athletes on their roster from Tokyo 2020. Olympian Feryal Ashraf took home the gold medal in Karate and Olympian Hedaya Malak won the bronze medal in Taekwondo. Their successes were celebrated greatly by the entire country. I myself watched these wins with great pride as an Egyptian. I hadn't seen Egypt in the spotlight much during the past Olympics. They have paved the way for many more future female Olympians

- Olympian Feryal Asharaf -

- Olympian Hedaya Malak -

Although I have been talking about hijabi athletes I want to highlight some non-hijabi females also. Sifan Hassan from Team Netherlands was the first athlete to medal in all three track events at one Olympics - the 1,500, the 5,000, and the 10,000 meters. Born in Adama, Oromia, Ethiopia Sifan Hassan was raised in the countryside of Kersa in the Munesa district of Arsi Zone of Oromia. She left Ethiopia for the Netherlands at the age of 15. Refugee to Olympian. How can we not celebrate her?!

Last but certainly not least is Yusra Mardini. A Syrian Refugee turned Olympian. Her story is sad, heroic, and beautiful at the same time. Yusra and her family lived in Daraya, a small suburb of Damascus, Syria. A natural swimmer with a coach as a father swimming ran deep in her blood. With the increased civil unrest and dangers of living in Syria practicing became harder. After convincing her parents to let her leave Syria to pursue her dream of becoming an Olympian she headed to Turkey to be smuggled to Greece and hopefully find a new home in Germany. 20 minutes into a 45-minute trip the motor on the boat stopped. Fearing for the lives of the other passengers Yusra and her sister jumped into the water and swam for 3 hours towing the boat until they reached Greece. In 2016 Yusra Mardini went to Rio and swam for the Refugee Olympic Team.

Again, it’s not the fact that these athletes are Muslim that makes their successes one to be proud of. It’s their stories that make their successes all that much more powerful. Role models for our young Muslims. Role models for our African-American Muslims. Role models for our refugee Muslims. Role models for all our Muslim girls and boys. Someone they can relate to. Someone to inspire them and remind them that no matter what cards they are dealt they can overcome anything and be anything they want to be.