Dalilah Muhammad brought home gold for the US in the 400m hurdles in Rio. But she describes the current political situation under Donald Trump as ‘insane’
When she slowed to a stop in the Olympic stadium on that warm night in Rio, Dalilah Muhammad knew life would never quite be the same.
The New Yorker had just won Olympic gold in the 400m hurdles, catapulting herself into a limelight she never anticipated, offering her a platform she never expected. In the six months since, she has kept her counsel on the issues dividing her country, but now she feels it’s time to make her voice heard.
“It’s insane what’s going on and what America is becoming,” Muhammad told the Guardian in New York this weekend, where she opened her season with a 500m race at the Millrose Games. “It’s frightening and a little scary.”
Muhammad was born and raised in Queens, where she grew up in what she describes as a liberal Muslim household, and where her father, Askia, is an imam who leads prayers at a local mosque. When Donald Trump was inaugurated as US president last month and swiftly issued an executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations, Muhammad was watching on from her training base in Los Angeles.
“It’s kind of crazy,” she says. “It’s just an unfortunate situation.”
While the background of her US Olympic team-mate and fellow Muslim, Ibtihaj Muhammad, was repeatedly brought up during the Games, Dalilah Muhammad’s faith passed largely under the radar despite her winning gold, in part, she believes, because of her decision not to wear a hijab.
“A lot of people said it to me: ‘you’re not the stereotypical Muslim’, but there are a lot of people who are Muslim and we express our religion in different ways,” says Muhammad, who admits that her parents have been concerned with events in the US in recent months.
“I definitely think it’s scary for my mother, more for me and having a daughter who is now so much in the public eye,” says Muhammad. “My father is more with it, and he loves it. He wants the world to see Muslims in a different light. They’re different but we all have the same beliefs.”
On Thursday last a court ruling blocked Trump’s travel ban, though the US president has since said he is confident he would win a court battle and that he may even sign a fresh executive order as early as this week.
Though Muhammad is a US citizen, she admits there are lingering concerns about travelling abroad to race on the track and field circuit. Later this week she will fly to the UK, where she will compete over 400m.
“My Nike reps were a little nervous about me travelling just because of my name,” she says. “It makes me a little bit worried, given I travel so much. To have the name Muhammad attached to me makes it a little scary.”
At the Millrose Games on Saturday night, other Muslim athletes echoed Muhammad’s concerns about the travel ban, such as Canada’s Mohammed Ahmed, who was born in Somalia who lives and trains in Portland, Oregon.
“Because of my place of birth and my name, I’m always going to get stopped at airports and get extra screening,” he said. “I’ve had to deal with that my whole life. I’ve spent a lot of hours at airports, missed flights. When I was younger it annoyed me a bit, because I was like: what’s wrong with me? As I’ve got to experience that more, I’ve come to realise that they’re doing it for a reason, as bigoted as it might seem.”
Sifan Hassan, a Muslim athlete from the Netherlands, admitted that she had similar concerns after relocating to Portland in recent months to train under famed coach Alberto Salazar. “I feel so bad,” said Hassan, who fled Ethiopia as a refugee at the age of 16. “It’s very painful. In the Netherlands it’s much better. What Trump is planning to do to Muslims, it’s not good. It’s just going to cause more problems.”
Hassan, who took victory in the prestigious Wanamaker mile on Saturday night in 4:19.89, the fourth fastest indoor time in history, said she has been encouraged by the response of the American people to Trump’s travel ban. “The people are so fantastic here,” she said. “But I just wish [Trump] would look at everybody like himself.”
And as for Muhammad, what words would she offer to her president, if given the chance? “Oh man,” she says, before pausing for thought. “I guess I would say to him we’re all the same, no matter what our beliefs.”