Rio 2016: Ibtihaj Muhammad out of Olympic fencing - but media won't let hijab-wearing American go quietly

After defeat by Cecilia Berder of France, she had enough on her plate without having to negotiate the one-woman Trump-buster construct that we, the media, has decided she must be

Kevin Garside
Rio de Janeiro
Monday 08 August 2016 18:15 BST
Ibtihaj Muhammad
Ibtihaj Muhammad ( Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


She was the poster girl for the hijab, a breaker of ground as the first American Muslim to compete at the Olympic Games in the traditional head-dress of her faith.

Turns out faith was irrelevant all along. When the whistle blows in this arena it’s about winning and losing. Nothing more, nothing less. Religious orientation had no bearing on the emotional swirl that claimed fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad after her defeat to Cecilia Berder of France in the last 16 of the sabre.

The swarm of journalists on hand to record history were not quick enough to intercept Muhammad after her loss. She swept straight through the mixed zone in tears before the fourth estate could get out of the lift.

The scrum recreated the best of the Carry On genre, headless hacks running hither and thither, Sid James bumping into Jim Dale with Hattie Jacques looking on in despair as the story sped out of the building to process the disappointment alone.

She probably could not face one more question about the hijab, about crossing some artificial frontier. She had enough on her plate without having to negotiate the one-woman Trump buster construct that we, the media has decided she must be.

The fencing hall is a bear pit of feral hopes and fears as well as beauty. The practiced artistry of the discipline has an aesthetic quality all its own with its noble shapes, its exaggerated thrusts, its upright demeanour, dispensing the death blows with a back as correct as Nelson’s Column.

After building an early lead Muhammad fell behind 7-8 at the interval, a deficit which quickly grew to 8-13, a statistical mountain that is almost impossible to climb. She brought it back to 10-14 but with only one more point needed Berder was by far the calmer athlete on the mat and duly delivered the decisive blow to progress to the quarter-finals.

With Muhammad too distraught to articulate her loss it was left to two fencers from the American junior ranks, 15-year-old Mitchell Saron and Alexis Browne, 16, to offer some perspective in her stead.

“She is still an inspiration to us whatever the outcome and whatever her faith. We don’t care about the hijab one way or another. She is a brilliant competitor. Today she lost but we don’t think anything less of her for that,” said Saron, demonstrating the sagacity of a man three times his age.

Muhammad is not yet finished with the Games. She will return later this week in the team competition. It is too much to hope that by then all talk of the hijab will have fallen away, of course.

But only when silence falls on the issue will we have reached that blessed state called acceptance.

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