Why Michael Phelps wasn't the best selection to be the U.S. flag bearer

RIO DE JANEIRO – Every four years, the United States gets to tell a distinctly American story in a very unique way — by selecting a flag bearer for the Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony. This year, the U.S. chose a story that has been told before.

The selection of Michael Phelps, as decided by athlete vote, is certainly a good one. He is the greatest Olympian of all time, not only synonymous with his sport but someone who has lifted swimming in an unprecedented way. The fact that Phelps is so familiar to all audiences is a tribute to how hard he’s worked and how much he’s accomplished. He is a legendary American.

But the choice of flag bearer is an opportunity to say, “This is who we are.” Everyone around the world knows Phelps is who we are. But not everyone knows the stories of some of the other candidates, and why they are so meaningful. Not everyone knows the story of Ibtihaj Muhammad.

Muhammad, raised by a police officer and a teacher, is a fencer who went to Duke, where she got degrees in African and African-American Studies and International Relations. She is also a devout Muslim. She will become the first American Olympian woman to compete in a hijab.

Too often, the sight of a hijab or even the mention of “Muslim” brings misconception and fear. Just recently, there was a woman on an airplane who asked to move seats because she saw a woman in a hijab texting “Allah” on her phone. At a recent presidential town hall event, one voter in New Hampshire challenged the candidate to replace TSA workers in hijabs.

“Why aren’t we putting our military retirees on that border or in TSA?” she asked. “Get rid of all these hebee-jabis they wear at TSA. I’ve seen them myself. We need the veterans back in there to — they’ve fought for this country and defended it, they’ll still do it.”

Lost on this voter was the fact that many of those who wear hijabs have represented our country, served our country and sacrificed for our country. There are nearly 6,000 Muslims in the military, according to the Department of Defense. Many Muslims have died for our country, and that was made powerfully clear in Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. He is a Gold Star parent, as his son gave his life defending the U.S. in Iraq in 2004. The media has focused on what Khan’s speech means for the upcoming election, but Khan’s turn in the spotlight has brought more attention to the complex meaning of being Muslim in America. So did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s speech. So did the national reflection on the passing of Muhammad Ali.

[Slideshow: Michael Phelps with each of his Olympic medals]

The easy response to support for Ibtihaj Muhammad as flag bearer is that choosing her would be “politicizing” the Opening Ceremony. That it would be picking sides in a heated presidential race.

But this argument doesn’t hold up. Choosing Muhammad would have simply been an expression of America’s diversity, and that in these Games, because of her accomplishment, we are a little more diverse than ever. This is not only who we are, but this is who we are now.

Other Olympians tell a similar story of change and growth. Carlin Isles missed his chance as a sprinter in 2012 and now comes to Rio as a rugby player in the sport’s return to the Olympics after nearly a century. Bernard Lagat is here, at age 41, as the oldest American Olympic runner ever. Jordan Burroughs fought extremely hard to keep wrestling as an Olympic sport. Water polo player Tony Azevedo is in his fifth Olympics, returning to the city of his birth.

[Fourth-Place Medal: Phelps meets idol Novak Djokovic in Rio]

It’s not that these choices would have been better than Phelps. These are all American heroes, and when the team walks into the Maracana Stadium on Friday, all Olympians are the same. But Phelps has had, and will always have, the opportunity to tell his own story. He will always have a rapt audience for whatever he does. The flag bearer gets a once-in-a-lifetime chance to tell his or her story simply by walking in with Old Glory. He or she also gets to tell the evolving story of a nation. America is different now than it was in 2012, and in 2008.

That’s the best story to tell, in the Opening Ceremony and in every Olympics.

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