This Year’s Olympic Moment

Historically, sports have rarely been a leading indicator of social justice. But when you look at an event like the Olympics –the world’s stage– it’s never been just about sports. Oftentimes, they’ve also served as platforms for political statements, terror, and in some cases even diplomacy.

In 1936, Jesse Owens toppled the sports propaganda fantasies of a dictator in Berlin. In 1968, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a black-gloved fist in the air while the national anthem played. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter decided to have the U.S. boycott the summer games in Moscow.

While reflecting on his return back home from Rome after winning a gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics, Muhammad Ali made waves when he said, “I’m defeating America’s so-called threats and enemies. And the flag is going dun-dun-dun-dun. I’m standing so proud. And I’d have whooped the world for America. I took my gold medal, thought I’d invented something. I said, “Man, I know I’m going to get my people freedom. I’m the champion of the whole world. Olympic champion. I know I can eat downtown now.” Ali was denied service.

Each of these incidents occurred during a period of self-assessment for our country, and each of them forced non-sports issues into the forefront. They forced us to talk about them as Americans.

Could Ali really be considered a champion in the eyes of the world, but not even be served at a popular restaurant in his hometown?

Were John Carlos and Tommie Smith trying to tell the rest of the world something about America?

As John Carlos later explained in his book, he was trying to start a conversation: “Hey, world, the United States is not like you might think it is for blacks and other people of colour. Just because we have USA on our chest does not mean everything is peachy keen and we are living large.”

And in 2016, we are entering another soul-searching period as a country. We have a presidential election, and one candidate has proposed banning all new immigrants who practice the religion of Islam.

We’ll find out in about two months who we’ve decided to become. We’ll find out which identity we’ve chosen. But for now, we’re just having a conversation of ideas about who we want to be.

In this Olympics, like so many before, we were offered a nugget of consideration during this period of self-reflection. Enter Ibtihaj Muhammad. In Rio, the 30-year old American fencer became the first female Muslim-American athlete to earn a medal at the Olympics when she earned a bronze. She was also the first U.S. athlete to compete at the Olympic games wearing a hijab.

Muhammad used her platform to a make a statement about our political climate. In an interview with The Guardian, she said, “We are in a really peculiar time in our country, where people are comfortable saying things about particular groups, and they encourage fear, and they encourage violence, and I want to challenge those ideas.”

Later, in an interview with CNN, Muhammad told the world what she had gotten out of the Olympics: “This is the America that I know and I love. The America that is inclusive, that is accepting and encompasses people from all walks of life.”

After winning a Medal in Rio, Muhammad continued to use the Olympic platform to offer a contribution to the national dialogue, tweeting “Muslim. Black. Girl. These are not limitations.” For now, that all remains true. In a few months, we’ll find out if the American public has chosen to keep it that way.