Ibtihaj Muhammad
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Ibtihaj Muhammad made history, even if she didn’t medal

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RIO DE JANEIRO – When Ibtihaj Muhammad emerged about an hour after her elimination, composed and ready to talk, she returned to a media mixed zone and found more than a dozen American journalists who waited for her.

“At the normal fencing competitions, we don’t have to deal with this many press,” Muhammad said. “Actually, we don’t have press.”

Muhammad, who won her first-round bout and then lost in the round of 16, made history by becoming the first American to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab, the traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women.

That alone merited coverage, even a lengthy wait for grumbling media.

She found a short cut out of the media area after her loss, so print reporters had no idea of her emotional state.

When she returned, she was composed, analytical and well spoken. No signs of the usual grief accompanying Olympic defeat.

She was disappointed of course but recognized her achievement.

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“In this moment, you’re thinking about what just happened. I’m thinking about every single point, I’m running through my head what I could have done differently,” she said. “I realize that this moment is bigger than me.”

Also developing is what journalists call a trend story for women’s sabre as a whole.

Women’s sabre has garnered a share of attention in the U.S. at four straight Games, among a crowded Olympic program that’s at 34 sports and growing larger for Tokyo 2020.

Mariel Zagunis made most of those headlines in 2004, winning the first U.S. Olympic fencing title in 100 years, and in 2008, leading an individual sabre sweep on the first day of the Games.

You may remember the Beijing medal-winning trio – Zagunis, Sada Jacobson and Becca Ward — did a sitdown interview with Bob Costas that aired during primetime six years ago.

In 2012, Zagunis was selected as the U.S. flag bearer for the Opening Ceremony. Again, more spotlight for the sport.

Muhammad took it to another level after qualifying for her first Olympic team in February.

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She appeared on Ellen, fenced with the First Lady in Times Square (foam swords) and reportedly was runner-up to Michael Phelps to carry the flag into the Opening Ceremony.

“It’s a small sport, and it’s hard for us to elbow our way to the front when it comes to getting media attention,” said Zagunis, who was upset in the round of 16 on Monday. “Especially during the Olympic Games, it’s our time to shine, but of course you have all the other bigger, more popular sports. … I think sabre fencing is the best it’s ever been right now.”

Muhammad, Zagunis and Dagmara Wozniak were all eliminated before the quarterfinals Monday. Better results were expected, as Zagunis is ranked No. 3 in the world and Muhammad is No. 8.

The trio has been on the national team together for several years.

Zagunis valued a hug she received from Wozniak in an athletes-only area after their defeats. Wozniak is known to wear three bracelets – one given to her by her sister, another from her fencing club and a third from Zagunis.

“We just said that we’re going to be ready to bring it for the team event,” on Saturday, Zagunis said.

The U.S. trio is a medal contender – the AP and Sports Illustrated both predicted silver before the Games.

There will be a decent size media contingent, perhaps more if Zagunis, Muhammad and Wozniak reach the semifinals or final.

And then it will be over.

If Zagunis and Muhammad continue fencing, they will go back to non-Olympic competitions and little American press.

Fencing is one five sports that has been contested at every Olympics since the first modern Games in 1896.

The others – cycling, gymnastics, swimming and track and field – have much stronger followings (outside of the Olympics for cycling, but certainly during the Games for the other three).

And of the six events in fencing, it’s quite remarkable that women’s sabre has been the one at the heart of the quadrennial attention.

Women’s sabre was the last event to be added to the Olympic fencing program – debuting in Athens 2004.

Men have fenced in the Olympics since 1896, women’s foil was added in 1924 and women’s épée in 1996.

Muhammad could have some non-fencing opportunities waiting for her after these Games. Maybe she takes them.

Zagunis said she’s not yet thinking about whether she will pursue a fifth Olympics in 2020, when she will be 35 years old. She will take a few months off after Rio, though.

Even if neither is around in four years, women’s sabre could again see an uptick in attention at the next Olympics.

There’s already a notable name on the horizon – Muhammad’s younger sister, Faizah, who is ranked seventh in the U.S. in the sabre.

“I always tell people that she’s way more talented than I am; I just work harder than her,” Muhammad said, eliciting laughs. “I’m hoping that you guys see her in 2020.”

Mikaela Shiffrin has rare fall in World Cup race

AP
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SAN VIGILIO DI MAREBBE, Italy (AP) — Overall World Cup leader Mikaela Shiffrin had an uncharacteristic fall and Ragnhild Mowinckel of Norway held a slim lead following the first run of a challenging giant slalom on Tuesday.

Seeking her first victory, Mowinckel held a 0.08-second lead over Marta Bassino of Italy and was 0.09 ahead of Viktoria Rebensburg at the Kronplatz resort.

Shiffrin lost control of her inside ski coming around a turn as she entered the steepest section of a slope named Erta, which translates as steep. Shiffrin slid a long way down the course but immediately got up and was not injured.

After missing a gate on Sunday in a super-G in Cortina d’Ampezzo, it marks the first time in Shiffrin’s career that she has failed to finish two consecutive races.

Russian Olympic, world champion skaters barred from PyeongChang

Viktor Ahn
AP
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MOSCOW (AP) — Several of Russia’s top medal hopes for next month’s Olympics, including six-time speedskating gold medalist Viktor Ahn, have been barred from the Pyeongchang Games amid the country’s ongoing doping scandal.

The Russian Olympic Committee said Tuesday that Ahn, cross-country skier Sergei Ustyugov and biathlete Anton Shipulin have been left out of an International Olympic Committee pool of eligible athletes.

Other officials said that two-time figure skating medalist Ksenia Stolbova and several other speedskaters were excluded. The Russian Figure Skating Federation said the IOC was trying to provoke Russia into a boycott.

ROC senior vice president Stanislav Pozdnyakov said in a statement that he discovered the absences during negotiations with IOC officials on Monday and has asked the Olympic body to explain why they were not included.

Pozdnyakov said Ahn, Ustyugov and Shipulin “have never been involved in any doping cases and all of the many samples they have given during their careers testify that they are clean athletes. Regardless, their names are currently missing from the list of potential participants in the games.”

The IOC said it would not comment on individual cases.

Ahn, a short-track speedskater, won three gold medals for South Korea at the 2006 Olympics as Ahn Hyun-soo before switching allegiance to Russia in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where he won three more.

The Russian Figure Skating Federation said in a statement that Stolbova, who won team gold and pairs silver in 2014, was excluded, as well as ice dancer Ivan Bukin, the son of 1988 Olympic gold medalist Andrei Bukin.

The federation said it was “deeply disappointed in this baseless IOC decision which is reminiscent of a provocation with the aim of forcing Russian athletes by any means possible to decline to participate in the games.”

The head of the Russian Skating Union, Alexei Kravtsov, told the RIA Novosti state news agency that numerous other speedskaters had been barred.

They include world champions Pavel Kulizhnikov and Denis Yuskov, both of whom have previously served bans for failed doping tests, as well as Ruslan Zakharov, who won an Olympic relay gold medal in short-track speedskating in Sochi in 2014.

As punishment for what it termed a sophisticated Russian doping program at the 2014 Olympics, the IOC has forced all Russians competing in Pyeongchang to do so as “Olympic Athletes from Russia” under the Olympic flag, rather than as an official Russian team.

Russian athletes must be vetted by an IOC commission, which will examine their history of drug testing and links to past doping, before they are invited to the games.

On Friday, the IOC said it had cut an initial list of 500 Russian athletes down to a pool of 389, but didn’t give any names. Russian officials have expressed hope they could field a team of 200 athletes. That’s below the number that competed for Russia in 2014, but above its total from the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow is waiting for the IOC to clarify the situation.

“We have seen those deplorable reports in the media,” Peskov said. “We deeply regret if such decisions have indeed been taken. But we hope the situation will clear up because we do have contacts with the IOC. We hope those contacts will help clarify the situation around the aforementioned prominent athletes.”

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MORE: IOC creates pool of Russians eligible for PyeongChang Olympics