Ibtihaj Muhammad: 'Being made to feel different is what makes it all the more difficult'
Ibtihaj Muhammad made history at the 2016 Olympics as the first American to compete in hijab and the , but the fencer has delivered a damning insight into a toxic Olympic team culture she describes as “psychological warfare” where she was treated as a “pariah” during the lead-up to the Rio Games.
Muhammad, who won an Olympic bronze medal as part of the United States sabre team in Brazil, alleges that, while a member of the US fencing team, she endured years of bizarre behavior from teammates and staff where she was left off official team sheets, omitted from team emails, ignored by teammates, and not invited to team dinners.
Muhammad, a Muslim from New Jersey who became well known for wearing a hijab in competition, also alleges team coach Ed Korfanty called her “lazy” and accused her of “slacking off” during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month where strict fasting is observed.
“The words, ‘Are you okay, Ibti? Do you need to rest for a minute, Ibti?’ never came out of his mouth,” Muhammad writes in her book, Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream, published this week.
An alarming claim by Muhammad is that Korfanty accused the fencer of “skipping practice” after being diagnosed with a sprained ankle by the team doctor.
“You can walk now, so I don’t believe that you are injured that badly,” Korfanty said in front of the team doctor, according to Muhammad.
Speaking to the Guardian, Muhammad said that while fencing is a highly competitive individual sport with many athletes competing for just three places on an Olympic team, the hostile environment within the US sabre team was elevated.
“I don’t know if the element of camaraderie and team is missing on other teams but what I do know is that I don’t believe the personalities and athletes that I had the misfortune of competing with had to be that way,” Muhammad said. “It wasn’t always that way.”
Muhammad’s allegations dramatically contradict what USA , the sports governing body in the US, lists on its website as the organization’s “core values”: “Excellence, Respect, Teamwork, Inclusion, Passion”.
Muhammad told the Guardian she raised concerns with USA Fencing about her experience with team and its management but received no response.
USA Fencing did not return multiple requests from the Guardian seeking comment on Muhammad’s allegations or what steps it took to address the issues at the time.
“I’m not one to create or want to cause drama, but at the same time I want the same opportunities as everyone else,” she said. “In our sport, if you don’t have a coach in your box that is a problem because the sport is so subjective. If I don’t have the coach even present or there to do his job, it is a problem. I would ask USA Fencing to address it but for whatever reason … maybe there was fear on their part they wanted to keep the establishment happy.”
“When you face issues of discrimination you don’t stop the person and say, ‘Hey, quick question, what’s your problem?’ For me, there are so many different avenues of intersectionality it could be anything. It could be that I am from New Jersey. Who in the world knows?”
The contentious sabre team environment described by Muhammad potentially contravenes the US Olympic Committee’s Athlete Safety Policy and SafeSport Code. The policy broadly “prohibits all forms of misconduct, including sexual, emotional, physical, bullying, harassment and hazing”.
All sports organizations that fall under the USOC umbrella must meet SafeSport requirements and coaches at all levels are required to take training courses to meet licensing requirements. The policy is intended to stamp out any type of abuse toward athletes. At the time of writing, USOC had not returned a request for comment.
“My thing is that I shouldn’t have to deal with that treatment [I received], especially at the highest level of the sport,” Muhammad said. “It is hard enough to climb your way to the top. Being made to feel different is what makes it all the more difficult.”
Now 32, Muhammad won the bronze medal in the team sabre event in 2016 alongside veterans Mariel Zagunis and Dagmara Wozniak and newcomer Monica Aksamit. Born in Newark, New Jersey, where her father was a police officer and her mother a teacher, Muhammad grew up in Maplewood, a suburban New Jersey town. A member of the United States national fencing team since 2010, she also trained at the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a New York City fencing club that recruits athletes from underserved communities.
“It’s not about fencing being white, it is about limited access,” Muhammad said when asked if fencing in the US is perceived as a white, elite sport.
“Fencing is such an expensive sport that you don’t find it in the public school system and you don’t find it in inner city neighborhoods where there are large minority populations. Because of limited access to the sport it does become very one-note in terms of its participants. It is people who have money and predominantly people who come from white families.”
Muhammad said initiatives like the Peter Westbrook Foundation – Westbrook won bronze in the individual sabre at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games – were important in providing minority athletes with an opportunity to train with people “who look just like themselves”.
“The foundation has transformed sport in a way that allows kids of color to view themselves in a way that traditionally didn’t happen,” she said. “I saw athletes that had Olympic medals, who were world champions, who traveled the world to fence. I didn’t even know it was a thing to travel to these world competitions. I was 23 years old when I went to my first international competition. All of my teammates on the Olympic team had been to World Cups from the time they were 13 years old.”
Muhammad’s experience with the US fencing team might serve as an example of the exact opposite of the International Olympic Committee’s definition of “Olympic spirit” – “mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play - but the medal-winning fencer believes it didn’t have to be that way.
“It would have been far easier for me and my teammates if we had been able to coexist, not just as teammates but also as colleagues,” she said. “At the end of the day, this is a job. Imagine going to work unhappy every day and being made to feel that you are inadequate.”