Muslim Medal Contenders in the Olympics
Think about the typical advertising campaign for the Olympic Games. More often than not, the focus is on finishing: Sticking the landing, crossing the finish line, scoring the gold-medal-winning goal, having one’s hand raised in victory. For this summer’s Games of the XXXI Olympiad, more focus seems to be on simply getting things started.
In the seven years since the International Olympic Committee announced Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as the host of the 2016 Olympics, the event has been plagued by health scares (Zika virus), safety concerns (three athletes have reportedly been kidnapped or robbed recently in Rio), performance-enhancing drugs (Russia’s track and field team has been banned for doping), unclean water, financial setbacks and construction roadblocks.
At this point, it will feel like a victory for Rio if the Opening Ceremony scheduled for August 5 actually happens. And if the Closing Ceremony set for August 21 manages to take place, that might be a borderline miracle. Assuming these Olympics will get started and eventually come to a finish, here are 16 Muslim athletes to watch in Rio:
AISHA AL BALUSHI
United Arab Emirates
For the last couple of years, it was understandably assumed that if the United Arab Emirates qualified only one female weightlifter for the Rio Olympics, that one athlete would be Amna Al Haddad — the 26-year-old with Nike sponsorship who has gained global notoriety for breaking barriers by competing in hijab in a sport that only recently saw its international governing body allow women to do so.
But thanks in part to Al Haddad suffering a recent back injury, 24-year-old Al Balushi was the one lifter (male or female) chosen to represent UAE in Rio. She is not unqualified for the honor. Al Balushi scored higher marks than Al Haddad at this year’s Asian Championships, and she has been involved in the sport almost twice as long as the relative newcomer Al Haddad.
With reigning 58-kilogram (128-pound) world champion Boyanka Kostova of Azerbaijan out of these Olympics due to a PED suspension, Al Balushi’s chances of landing on the medal stand automatically improve.
Ali’s name carries a lot of weight in his sport, even if his body doesn’t. The 20-year-old flyweight (114 pounds / 52 kilograms) is fighting in a weight class in which his country hasn’t produced an Olympic medalist since 1968.
Ali brings an impressive amateur resume into the tournament, including a first-place finish at last year’s British Championships and a silver medal at the 2014 World Youth Championships.
But as long as he keeps his birth name he’ll inevitably be compared to the other Muhammad Ali, a.k.a. “The Greatest,” a.k.a. the former three-time world heavyweight champion and historic megastar who passed away earlier this year.
“He was a good human being,” the younger Ali said of his namesake in a recent interview. “He said what he believed in. And I really respect that about him. I have watched all his fights.”
The six-year NBA veteran swings between small forward and power forward for the Portland Trail Blazers, and is considered one of the league’s better defenders. His skills on that end of the court will be much-needed if Nigeria runs into Team USA superstars like Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.
Nigeria will need Aminu’s offense, too. He averaged a career-high 10.2 points per game this past regular season, then went off for 17.2 points per game while making 55 percent of his three-pointers in Portland’s second-round playoff series loss to the eventual Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors.
If Aminu keeps playing at that level, he could team with Detroit Pistons rookie Michael Gbinije and former NBA first-round draft pick Ike Diogu to lead Nigeria out of group play in the country’s second-ever Olympic basketball appearance.
Track & Field
Four years ago in London, Attar made history as part of the first-ever delegation of female athletes to represent Saudi Arabia in the Olympics. She then received a standing ovation despite finishing in last place in her opening-round heat of the women’s 800-meter race.
At the time, Attar was a college student at Pepperdine University (Malibu, Calif.), where she ran on the track and cross country teams. Since then, the 23-year-old Attar has graduated from school and dedicated herself full-time to training. She has competed in marathons and improved her personal-best time in the 800 to a flat two minutes and 40 seconds.
MUTAZ ESSA BARSHIM
Track & Field
Even when he doesn’t win the men’s high jump competition, Barshim just looks like he’s jumping higher than everyone else. Tall, lanky, smooth and effortlessly bouncy, Barshim is track and field’s answer to NBA Slam Dunk champion Zach LaVine — except Barshim can get his entire body almost as high as an NBA rim while jumping backwards.
Barshim has collected handfuls of gold medals in Asian and Arab regional championships, as well as a gold medal from the 2014 World Indoor Championships. He has threatened to break the high jump world record; his personal best of 2.43 meters (7 feet, 11.5 inches) is the second-highest jump in history behind Cuban legend Javier Sotomayor‘s 2.45-meter (8 feet, 0.25 inches) leap from 1993.
Barshim, however, is still reaching for the two highest prizes in his sport, that being Olympic and outdoor World Championship gold. He earned a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics and a silver at the outdoor 2013 World Championships.
The son of former African taekwondo champion Zakaia Cho, Mahama left his native Ivory Coast as a child to move to Europe, where he took up his father’s sport and represented France and later Great Britain on the international level.
The 26-year-old Cho is ranked No. 6 in the world in the men’s over-80-kilograms (176 pounds) division and finished in first place at the European Olympic qualifying tournament. He won a gold medal at the 2013 World Taekwondo Grand Prix, and a silver at the 2014 tournament.
“I promote my religion to the best of my ability through my sport,” Cho said in an Ummah Sports feature in 2014. “In my life, showing a good image and then letting people know that I am Muslim is why I think people end up attracted to me. They don’t concentrate on the negativity of Islam but the beauty of what I do as a professional through Islam.”
Track & Field
Farah, 33, is the world’s marquee name in distance running. And after Jamaican sprinting superstar Usain Bolt, Farah is perhaps the planet’s most famous active track and field athlete.
At the last three major outdoor championships — the 2012 Olympics in London, the 2013 World Championships in Moscow and the 2015 World Championships in Beijing — Farah hogged all of the gold by sweeping the men’s 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter races.
Whether it’s his specialty races on the track, half-marathons and marathons on the road, or in cross country races through the woods, Farah is expected to win just about every time he steps to the starting line. Sometimes he has entire delegations of runners from other countries aiming to literally block him from finishing first. Most of the time, Farah winds up doing his popular “Mo-Bot” victory celebration — before his customary sujood prostration to Allah [swt] on the track.
Track & Field
Ghribi came across the finish line in second place in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2012 Olympics and the 2011 World Championships, but was awarded the gold medals for both races earlier this year after first-place finisher Yulia Zaripova of Russia was retroactively disqualified for doping.
In Rio, Ghribi’s goal is to earn the gold in the old-fashioned way of beating everyone else on the track.
Last year, Ghribi ran the fourth-fastest time ever in her event at 9:05.36, an African record. This year, she is peaking at just the right time for an Olympic triumph, posting a season’s best 9:21.35 on July 23 in London.
One of the few women’s soccer teams with a realistic chance of upsetting the powerhouse U.S. squad for gold is France. Houara-d’Hommeaux has a track record of success against the Americans, scoring one of her three career international goals against them in a 2015 upset victory in a friendly match.
The 28-year-old midfielder plays professionally for Paris Saint-Germain in France’s Division 1 Feminine, where her teams have won the Coupe de France Feminine and finished second in the UEFA Women’s Champions League. She also helped France to a fourth-place finish at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Last year, Houara-d’Hommeaux posed for a photo in the French magazine Surface wearing a hoodie like a hijab headscarf and soccer netting over her face similar to a niqab. Wearing a niqab in public is illegal in France, a controversial and polarizing law that made Houara-d’Hommeaux’s photo a bold choice.
A Sports Illustrated article said: “Given Houara’s Algerian descent, the image does not seem to be about appropriating or parodying the veil. It is not a comment about the oppression of Muslim women. Instead, the portrait seems to be about quietly slaying some misconceptions. After all, it is not often that hijab is associated with athletic achievement and inclusiveness.”
In his day job, Khalili plays midfielder for Mersin Idmanyurdu in Turkey’s Super Lig and has scored 17 goals in his professional career. In his spare time, he is a rising star in his native Sweden’s national team program.
Khalili helped the Swedish under-21 squad to a first-place finish at the 2015 UEFA European Championship for his age group. This year he could help his country’s senior team to its first Olympic medal since Sweden took bronze at the 1952 Games in Helsinki, Finland.
Muhammad, 30, will make history when she steps into Carioca Arena 3 for her first match in the women’s sabre fencing competition in Rio. She will become the first U.S. athlete in any sport to compete in the Olympics while wearing a hijab headscarf.
In the meantime, Muhammad has been catching up to former NBA superstar Hakeem Olajuwonas perhaps the most famous Muslim athlete to ever compete for Team USA in the Olympics. (Muhammad Ali was still going by his birth name, Cassius Clay, and had not yet converted to Islam when he boxed at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.) She has appeared on talk shows such as “Ellen” and been featured in magazines such as Elle. She has met with President Barack Obama at the White House. The clothing line she founded for women who want to dress modestly, called Louella, is gaining in popularity. She has over 51,000 followers on Instagram and over 14,000 followers on Twitter. TIME magazine named Muhammad one of their “100 Most Influential People in the World” for 2016.
Muhammad is ranked No. 8 in the world by the International Fencing Federation and will have more eyes on her than any Olympic fencer in recent memory. But even if she doesn’t win a medal in Rio, she has already scored victories for Muslims all over the country and around the world.
There is not a more compelling “tragedy to triumph” story in these Olympics than that of Niyonshuti. When he was just seven years old, six of his brothers were killed in the infamous Rwandan genocide of 1994.
After learning how to ride a bicycle as a teenager, Niyonshuti was spotted by cycling legend Jonathan Boyer (the first American to compete in the Tour de France) during a charity mission to Rwanda and taken under his wing. Niyonshuti soon became the first Rwandan to compete on Europe’s professional cycling circuit and qualified for the 2012 Olympics in cross-country mountain biking. He was his country’s flag-bearer in the Opening Ceremony. After the Olympics, he opened the Adrian Niyonshuti Cycling Academy in Rwanda.
In Rio, the 29-year-old will compete in the men’s road race.
Ranked No. 2 in the world in the 57-kilogram (126-pound) weight class in men’s freestyle wrestling, Rahimi was predicted to win the gold medal in this month’s Sports Illustrated Olympic preview issue.
Rahimi, 27, will try to make up for a disappointing 2012 Olympics in which he finished eighth. Since that letdown of a performance, he has won gold (2013), bronze (2014) and silver (2015) at the Wrestling World Championships.
Golf is back in the Olympics for the first time since 1904. But due to fears over the Zika virus — and perhaps a little issue with a lack of adequate prize money — a lot of the world’s best golfers have turned down invitations to play in Rio.
But in the absence of big-name stars like Tiger Woods steps the man referred to as the “Tiger Woods of Bengal.” As an amateur, Rahman won 12 tournaments in Asia. Since turning pro in 2005, he has notched two wins on the Asian Tour — the first golfer from Bangladesh to win on the tour — and six wins on the Tour of India.
Track & Field
After marrying Iranian sprinter Peyman Rajabiand becoming an Iranian citizen, Belarus native Leila Rajabi converted to Islam, changed her name, and quickly went about the business of becoming the best female shot-putter to ever represent Iran.
Rajabi owns the national record in the shot put at 18.18 meters (59 feet, 7 inches). She has won gold medals at the Asian Indoor Games and the Asian Indoor Championships, as well as silver at the Asian Games (outdoor) and the Asian Championships.
ELIF JALE YESILIRMAK
Yesilirmak is a two-time bronze medalist in the 58-kilogram (128-pound) women’s freestyle division at the Wrestling World Championships, a two-time bronze medalist at the European Championships, and a gold medalist at the 2013 Mediterranean Championships.
Yesilirmak converted to Islam after moving to Turkey from her native Russia. In 2012, she became the first female wrestler to represent Turkey in the Olympics. She failed to reach the medal stand in London, but has won medals at four major wrestling meets since then. Yesilirmak has also been a prominent figure in the growth of women’s wrestling in Turkey; the country is bringing five female wrestlers to the Rio Olympics.
Source: Ummah Sports