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Monday, January 16, 2012

A Hijab Fencer, The Flying Scot, and Tim Tebow

National Public Radio (NPR) recently ran a story about American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who hopes to compete in the 2012 London Olympics ("Olympic Hopeful Mixes Muslim Faith And Fencing"). If she qualifies (she's currently ranked second in her weapon in the US), she'll be the first practicing Muslim to represent US women's fencing and the first American to wear a Hijab (i.e., the Islamic head-covering) while competing.

Make no mistake. Ibtihaj is no liberal. She is a theologically conservative Muslim as illustrated by her dislike of the reality show, "All American Muslim:"
You know, being a Muslim American is not easy at all. It's very difficult. And the way I practice Islam speaks for itself and, you know, people can either accept me or they can choose not to. And I feel the same way about the show. I don't think that "All-American Muslim" in any way represents who I am. I like to think that I'm a very conservative Muslim, and I think that a lot of the Muslims on that show, I would say, are extremely liberal.
Fencing is not the only sport Ibtihaj has played, but she likes fencing best because she doesn't have to alter her uniform as she often had to with other sports. Not having to do so makes her feel more of a teammate. For example, she told NPR how when she used to play volleyball, while her teammates wore a tank top and spandex, she wore a shirt under her tank top and sweats over her spandex.

If Ibtihaj qualifies for the London Olympics, her event will be held during Ramadan, which means that she will have to fast from sunup to sundown. This is not the first time she has had to do this over in the course of her fencing career. She participated in a training camp in Colorado Springs during Ramadan, which she says was the toughest Ramadan of her life:
You know, that was, honestly, I think, one of the toughest Ramadans that I've had in my experience while fasting, not only, you know, abstaining from eating or drinking, but also... the altitude. Trying to be an athlete and train at a really high altitude is tough. You dehydrate a lot faster. You're susceptible to injury when you're dehydrated. So we were training twice a day, and I found that meeting with the trainers at the Olympic training center, they were really, really helpful... They put me on a strict diet, like I didn't have a lot of salt intake. I had to wake up periodically in the night to consume Gatorade and water to make sure that I didn't suffer from dehydration. And the tough thing about it is, you know, when you're not drinking and you're training at this level, you do suffer from dehydration, and I did have a few muscle strains and pulls during that time. But, you know, fasting is a part of my life. Being Muslim is a part of my life, and, you know, fencing, I work into it, but I wouldn't fence if it hindered, you know, me practicing my religion in any way.
It may not be the first time, but it will be a far larger stage than before and will almost certainly attract a lot of media attention.

The fact that Ibtihaj's faith could jeopardize her athletic aspirations at the upcoming Olympic Games, reminds me of how the faith of Eric Liddell (aka the Flying Scot and one of the two runners featured in the Academy Award winning movie, Chariots of Fire -- the other was Harold Abrahams) cost him a shot at a Gold medal in the 100 meter dash, his best event, at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. A devout Christian, Liddell refused to run in a heat because it was held on Sunday, which forced him to withdraw from the race. (Unlike how it is portrayed in the movie, the heat schedule was published months in advance of the Games, and his decision to withdraw was made long before the Games as well.) Instead, Liddell spent the months leading up to the Olympics training for another event, the 400 meters, an event in which he did well but not good enough to be considered a contender for a medal. Nevertheless, Liddell qualified for the finals, and when he got to the starting blocks, an American Olympic Team masseur (not Jackson Scholz as portrayed in the movie) slipped a piece of paper into his hand with a quote from 1 Samuel 2:30: "Those who honor me I will honor." Inspired by the Biblical message, Liddell  broke the existing Olympic and world records with a time of 47.6 seconds.

Liddell attributed much of his success to God ("The secret of my success over the 400m is that I run the first 200m as fast as I can. Then, for the second 200m, with God's help I run faster."), and he often used races as opportunities to share his faith. For example, in the movie Chariots of Fire, he's shown speaking to a small crowd after winning a race:
You came to see a race today. To see someone win. It happened to be me. But I want you to do more than just watch a race. I want you to take part in it. I want to compare faith to running in a race. It's hard. It requires concentration of will, energy of soul. You experience elation when the winner breaks the tape - especially if you've got a bet on it. But how long does that last? You go home. Maybe you're dinner's burnt. Maybe you haven't got a job. So who am I to say, "Believe, have faith," in the face of life's realities? I would like to give you something more permanent, but I can only point the way. I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within. Jesus said, "Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you. If with all your hearts, you truly seek me, you shall ever surely find me." If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race.
And that brings us to Tim Tebow, starting quarterback for the National Football League's (NFL) Denver Broncos and a devout Christian who, like Eric Liddell, isn't shy about sharing his faith. For the most part, Tebow has endeared himself with American sport fans: according to a recent ESPN Sports Poll, Tebow is currently America's favorite active pro athlete ("Poll: Tim Tebow is U.S.' favorite").
Tebow was picked by 3 percent of those surveyed as their favorite active pro athlete. That put him ahead of Kobe Bryant (2 percent), Aaron Rodgers (1.9 percent), Peyton Manning (1.8 percent) and Tom Brady (1.5 percent) in the top-five of the results... The poll, calculated monthly, had the Denver Broncos quarterback ranked atop the list for the month of December. In the 18 years of the ESPN Sports Poll only 11 different athletes -- a list that includes Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and LeBron James -- have been No. 1 in the monthly polling.
Although Tebow is a favorite among some, he evokes a level of hostility among others that is, in some respects, surprising considering that by most accounts he's loyal to his family and friends, he treats others with respect (including women, unlike a number of other pro athletes such as Ben Roethlisberger and Kobe Bryant), he works hard, and he's successful (two college national championships, a Heisman trophy, and a playoff win in his first year as an NFL starter). Nevertheless, according to a recent article in The Christian Century his overt displays of faith grate on some, in particular secularists and apparently (some) mainline Protestants.

However, compared to Ibtihaj Muhammad and Eric Liddell, Tebow's displays of faith are relatively tame. If Tebow was as devout as Eric Liddell, he wouldn't be playing pro football at all since the NFL plays most of its games on Sundays (no doubt, this would make some folks happy); moreover, Tebow has not sought to alter his uniform in order to play nor does he need to (yes, there are forms of Christianity that place restrictions on what the faithful can wear). Thus, while I'm not crazy about how Tebow shares his faith, it doesn't get in the way of me enjoying watching him play and cheering him on (except, of course, if and when he plays the Niners), just as Ibtihaj's Hijab will not get in the way of me cheering her on this summer.

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