Why Team USA made the wrong decision by choosing Michael Phelps as the flag bearer, letting us all down

Tonight, at 7:30e/6:30c Micheal Phelps, the most decorated Olympian ever will carry out the USA’s flag, serving in the coveted position of flag bearer for our nation.

There is no question that Phelps is highly deserving of this duty based on his Olympic accomplishments (he’s won 22 medals), but when it comes to what the flag bearer of the USA is really supposed to represent, our Team USA athletes (they vote on who the flag bearer will be) really dropped the ball this year. They played it safe and gave into the status quo of what and who Americans are.

First off, to me (and many other Americans) the flag bearer is supposed a representation of our country and the people who live in it. It is supposed to represent where our country is and where we can go from here, while also reflecting the world. The person is a symbol of optimism and hope for Americans, that they too can one day be great and can be what America really stands for. A flag bearer give athletes the ability to make a powerful statement beyond winning a gold medal.

That is why, I think this choice let a lot of Americans down this year. Now let’s look at some previous USA flag bearers, so that we can understand more of why I am saying this.

In 2008, Lopez Lomong proudly carried our amazing red, white and blue flag into the stadium in Beijing, a move that cast an additional spotlight on the controversy over humanitarian abuses in Sudan’s embattled Darfur region.

Lomong was just 23 when he got that honor, and he is truly the definition of the American dream. He is a former “Lost Boy” from Sudan, who was separated from his family when he was kidnapped by soldiers during a Sunday morning mass in his native country. Lomong was taken along with several other children to a prison where they were trained to become child soldiers. However, he managed to escape the camp and ran all way to Kenya for three days and nights with other boys, where Lomong spent the next 10 years of his life in a refugee camp.

In 2001, at the age of 16, he was one of the almost 4,000 “Lost Boys” who were resettled in various cities across the United States as part of a U.N. and U.S. government program. He was adopted by a family in Tully, New York, went to high school and started running as a career. In July 2007, Lomong became a U.S. citizen and just a year later he made the USA national Olympic team. His event was the 1,500-meter race in Beijing. Lomong didn’t end up making it to the finals, but said he was but was honored to be selected as the flag bearer for Team USA.

Now my fellow Americans, that is a story. That is what America represents. It represents people that can come from anywhere and everywhere and find a home here. Americans are people that rise from oppression and defeat odds. Americans are people who shine the light on issues in the world. Lomong was a true representation of who are.

Moving on to 2012, fencer Mariel Zagunis was chosen to carry our flag. Coming out of an insane recession and trying to recover, Zagunis represented how underdogs can come out on top. How the American people can prevail despite falling.

In 2004, her first Olympic games, Zagunis was not even supposed to be on the team. She only got a spot when a Nigerian athlete dropped out of the games, allowing the next best to compete from whatever country they belonged — that happened to be Zagunis. She made it to Athens solely on luck and made the most out of it.

She became the first U.S. fencer to win gold at an Olympic Games in a hundred years, but remember, she wasn’t even supposed to be there. She came back in 2008 and won gold again, and despite not medaling at all in 2012 (the year she served as flag bearer) she represented the fact that Americans can come back. She represented the power of American women as well. She represented that we have so many underdogs in our country and we need to recognize them.

Now, looking to Rio tonight, I feel proud of Phelps, yet disappointed that he is carrying our flag. Why? Because everyone already knows Phelps’ story. We all know who is he and why he got the job. It’s nothing new to Americans or the world. He’s a winner.

But that is exactly the problem. The flag bearer gives America the opportunity to tell a new story. To turn a chapter and to let someone else’s voice be heard. That’s what makes Lomong’s and Zaginus’ stories so amazing. It’s that we had no idea who they were, their stories, yet somehow, when we found out about them, we were really proud.

I remember our athletes those years giving Americans stories that relate to them and stories that they were shocked to hear, but proud to know about to tell. They weren’t predictable people. They weren’t celebrity Team USA athletes that we read about in the news all the time. They were the everyday Americans that walk the streets with us who - for once - got to shine.

This year, a choice that would have been absolutely incredible for Team USA would have been fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, a Muslim-American who will be the first American Olympian to compete in a hijab.

Right now America is filled with so much uncertainty, hatred and the most scary of them all — fear. One of the most feared minority groups of us all however, as our Muslim-Americans. For some reason, people fear them because of the way the look and dress. We judge them because of their religion and then get mad when people judge us on ours. They’re not all terrorists. A lot of them are Americans and people need to understand that.

Choosing her would have been a statement that could have changed the hearts and minds of many people all across our country. It could have made them less fearful of what they don’t understand and more proud to live in a country that is diverse. Americans are different and that is what makes us America. People should be able to wear hijabs and not be feared here.

Muhammad is the daughter of a teacher and a police officer and was raised in Maplewood, New Jersey. She took up fencing in the eighth grade because the body-length uniform accommodated her Muslim beliefs. She fenced at Duke and graduated with degrees in International Relations and African and African-American studies. She’s also an entrepreneur, founding the modest-fashion label Louella that offers fashion pieces to Muslim women.

She inspires a lot of people, and this could have been our chance to say something greater about America (and the world) and what we stand for.

Instead, we decided to go with the winner. The person whose story has already been told countless times and who will always represent America socially and economically. We went with a person who yes, has worked really really hard and has made our country really really proud, but he’s also a person who this county is built for — a white, male, upperclass, winner.

The reality is that there are so many Americans not winning in this country. So many people who can’t afford go to college. So many people who can’t walk in public without being fearful of how they will be treated because of the color of their skin or the clothes they’re wearing. So many people drowning in debt and living in poverty. So many women not being to make ends meet because they aren’t paid nearly as much as men. So many people with mental illness problems. So much gun violence. So many members of the LGBTQ community still suffering. These are the voices that need to be heard on an international stage like the Olympics.

As much as some people in American don’t want to admit it, Muhammad is what an American looks like; because despite popular belief, there is no status quo of what an American is. We are diverse and should be proud of it. But don’t let that take away the fact that although there is not status quo of who an American is, there is a firm definition of who our country favors and who it is built for. Let’s change that.

Over this next month, Phelps will make us proud time and time again. We know he is going to. Because winning is what he does and that’s predicable.

We will hear countless stories of Olympians, but some incredible stories will just fade the background behind his achievements. Stories that could have been told from the very moment Team USA walked in and watched the torch light up.

The Olympics represent and take a stand for real problems in world — they even gave us a refugee team this year, because that’s important. The IOC gives individual delegations the opportunity to stand up for those problems as well. We could have done that. We didn’t. For the first time ever I can say that by choosing the easiest choice, Team USA really let me and a lot other Americans down.

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