Ibtihaj Muhammad
Getty Images

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

2 Comments

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.

MORE: Latest fencing news and live streams

“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.

MORE: Fencing videos from every event

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.”

With USOC in turmoil, athletes testify about sex-abuse cases

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The question sex-abuse victim Craig Maurizi would like to ask U.S. Olympic leaders is simple and searing: “How can you sleep at night?”

Every bit as perplexing: How to make sure this doesn’t happen again?

The figure skater was one of four Olympic-sports athletes who testified to a Senate subcommittee Wednesday about abuse they suffered while training and competing under the purview of the U.S. Olympic Committee and the national sports organizations that controlled their Olympic dreams.

Their testimony provided yet another reminder of the way leaders at the USOC, US Figure Skating, USA Gymnastics and other federations failed to protect them over a span of decades.

At a USOC board meeting held later in the day, acting CEO Susanne Lyons outlined a six-part “Athlete Action Safety Plan” the federation is developing as a response to the abuse cases.

But the abuse victims, including Olympic gymnasts Jordyn Wieber and Jamie Dantzscher and speed skater Bridie Farrell, cast doubt on the USOC’s motivation to solve this problem.

Wieber, who won a gold medal in 2012, is among the roughly 200 athletes who have detailed abuse by team doctor Larry Nassar, who is in prison for molesting athletes on the U.S. gymnastics team and at Michigan State.

“After many people came forward and said Larry Nassar had abused them, I didn’t get a phone call from anyone at the USOC asking anything until after I gave a victim-impact statement,” Wieber said, recalling the emotional week in a Michigan courtroom that spotlighted the depth of the abuse scandal. “If you’re not currently a competing athlete, you’re not really relevant. They don’t really care anymore.”

The USOC is in search of a new CEO — someone to replace Scott Blackmun, who resigned with health problems in February.

When Blackmun resigned, the USOC announced a number of initiatives that mirrored the six-part plan Lyons described Wednesday.

It includes more funding for abuse victims and a review of the governance structure of the USOC and the 47 national governing bodies, whose sports make up the Olympics.

The USOC has also doubled its funding — to $3.1 million a year — for the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which opened last year.

Two months ago, the center responded to Maurizi’s call about a four-decade-old abuse case that US Figure Skating swept under the rug when he first reported it 20 years ago.

“When I think back to my particular situation, there’s just no way that dozens, if not hundreds, of people around the ice rink didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “Five-hour meetings in the office with a 15-year-old boy? That’s ridiculous. So, my question would be: How do you live with yourself? … How can you sleep at night?”

Leaders at the USOC, USA Gymnastics and Michigan State could be forced to answer those questions May 22, which is the date the Senate subcommittee has scheduled its next hearing on the sex-abuse cases.

It’s doubtful the USOC will have a new CEO by then, though it’s becoming clear it needs a well-articulated path forward through a devastating 12 months for Olympic athletes and the organizations that are supposed to protect them.

Max Siegel, the CEO of USA Track and Field, said commercial partners are hesitant to strike deals under the current climate.

“It’s an indication to me that it’s impacting the commercial viability of the business, and it’s a reflection of the societal challenges we face,” he said.

He said he was not opposed to a rethinking of the relationship between the USOC and NGBs, which have long valued their independence as the training grounds for Olympic athletes. The USOC has often positioned itself as an umbrella organization — a mere bystander when it comes to day-to-day operation of the sports.

“It’s not always clear what role we should be playing,” said Lyons, who attended the hearings in Washington. “Sometimes, athletes fall between the cracks a bit when they have issues with NGBs.”

Farrell served up the only concrete proposal in the more than two hours of testimony to the Senate subcommittee.

She would like to see more athletes — closer to 50 percent — placed on NGB boards. She’d also like to see retired athletes given a chance to serve.

The USOC appears amenable to that suggestion; one of its reforms is to see that athletes have a louder voice in decisions that impact them.

When asked what she would say to the leaders, Farrell said she would make one simple request:

“Take our names out, take our pictures out, and put their kids’ names and pictures in there, and see if it makes a difference,” she said. “Let them know there are thousands of people looking at them, as they should be, for missing the opportunity.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: McKayla Maroney speaks publicly for first time since Nassar case

U.S. Ski & Snowboard names new Alpine director

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jesse Hunt is returning to U.S. Ski & Snowboard as the Alpine team director, replacing Patrick Riml, who left the post last month after seven years in the position.

Hunt first joined U.S. Ski & Snowboard as a coach in 1993 and became Alpine director after the 2002 Olympics, leaving the post in 2009 for Park City Ski & Snowboard in Utah. He served as program director and general manager in Park City over the last nine years.

“We have an exciting challenge ahead of us to give our Alpine ski racers the chance to be best in the world, but that is precisely the challenge that motivates me the most, helping athletes achieve everything that they are capable of,” Hunt said in a press release. “We have a strong mix of highly experienced athletes and those coming up through the ranks in both the men’s and women’s teams, in speed and tech, and the chance to help all of them achieve greatness is one I could not turn down.”

No reason was given when Riml stepped down last month.

Under Riml, the U.S. Alpine skiing team earned eight medals between the 2014 and 2018 Olympics, led by Lindsey VonnMikaela ShiffrinJulia MancusoBode Miller and Ted Ligety.

In PyeongChang, the U.S. earned zero men’s Alpine medals at the Olympics for the first time since 1998. Riml called the Olympic men’s performance “disappointing” and said “we definitely have to rebuild” before the 2022 Olympics, according to The Associated Press.

The U.S. had one men’s World Cup podium finish this past season and two the season before, its least successful stretch since 1999-00.

Mancuso retired before PyeongChang, and Vonn is expected to retire after next season, large boots to fill on the women’s speed side.

U.S. Ski & Snowboard has a goal of becoming the world’s best team by 2026 through “Project 26,” a change in national team selection and development programming with a focus on the 2022 and 2026 Olympics.

“Some of our Alpine team’s greatest successes have been propelled by the work that Jesse accomplished during his first tenure with us,” U.S. Ski & Snowboard Chief of Sport Luke Bodensteiner said in the press release. “He’s the right person to lead our team right now, as we continue to maximize the capability of our elite team, while also activating the roadmap in our development efforts to build our team for the future.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Lindsey Vonn looks ahead to likely last season