As we all witnessed, Michael Phelps, our most celebrated American swimmer and winner of 28 medals, accepted the honor and was holding the flag during the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics. Many still believe he made the wrong decision and should have stepped down to let Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first Muslim American woman to wear the hijab on the United States fencing team, be the flag bearer.
I disagree. Phelps earned his honor fairly due to the tremendous efforts he has put forth during his Olympic career. Muhammad came in a close second to Phelps in a majority vote deciding the U.S. flagbearer at the Olympics.
Muhammad holds the distinction of being the first woman on the U.S. Olympic team to wear a hijab, a scarf worn by Muslim women as a form of modesty. Her accomplishments and background are truly a testament to what it means to be an American and the diversity of our country today. Muhammad is currently a fencer for Team USA, ranked second in the U.S. and seventh around the world, in addition to having graduated from the prestigious Duke University. She is also a practicing Muslim and an African American, embodying many of the cultures and races that make America great.
Just as all of America is proud of Muhammad, her accomplishments and her tremendous influence—she was named to TIME’s top 100 most influential people recently—we cannot minimize the enduring legacy of Phelps. He is the most decorated Olympian of all time and is competing at his fifth olympics in Rio. With a total of 28 medals to date, his successes speak to his hard work and sheer talent in the field of swimming.
Given these accomplishments, there is no question as to why Phelps would be considered for the position of flagbearer for the U.S. Olympic team. Yet soon after the announcement that he was the 2016 U.S. Olympic flagbearer, some questioned whether he was the best choice for flagbearer and others stated he should have given the position to Muhammad.
Phelps is both an incredible athlete and a noteworthy ambassador for the U.S., often regarded as a demigod in the water. There is no racist or political agenda at play when choosing the flagbearer to represent the U.S. at the Olympics. Both Phelps and Muhammad are equally talented and respected Americans, it just happens that one of them has more Olympic titles and history associated with the games. Muhammad is no doubt a great athlete that inspires many. Her story is yet another that adds to America’s incredible history.
The Olympic games are a chance for athletes to highlight their hard work and dedication and to display fruits of their labor on the world stage. We can still actively take a stand against the Islamaphobia, xenophobia and racism that plague our nation without urging someone to step down from a position they truly deserve. The inclusion of Muhammad on the Olympic team and the national admiration she has received so far outweighs some of the more critical reception.
For now, we must refocus the Olympic lens on athleticism and passion for sports rather than political conflict—and by that standard, Phelps was a prime candidate to carry our nation’s flag in the Parade of Nations. I look forward to a day in the future where Muhammad may also be honored with the position of flag bearer, but it remains that this choice is made by democratic vote—not based on public opinion.
Ankita Chakraborty is a second-year student majoring in biology and minoring in psychology.