Time to Fly
Sabir Muhammad: Single African-American swimmer, free spirit, seeks date—in Sydney
Television viewers may soon be seeing a lot of Sabir Muhammad. This fall the 24-time All-America swimmer landed a role on Baywatch. He plays a college basketball player turned swimmer in an episode that is set to air in May. In the months after that, the 23-year-old Muhammad has a good shot at a far more significant role: that of the first black swimmer to make the U.S. Olympic team.
Last February, Muhammad, a 1998 graduate of Stanford, broke U.S. short-course records in the 50-and 100-meter butterflies and the 100-meter freestyle. He has a solid chance of making the U.S. team in the latter two events at the Olympic trials next August. In the meantime the multifaceted Muhammad will continue writing his regular column on USA Swimming's Web site, where his musings range from the silly to the serious. After Julius Erving was revealed as the father of tennis phenom Alexandra Stevenson, Muhammad wrote, "I am the love child of Wilt Chamberlain and Diana Ross. I would also like to reach out to any of the possible 20,000 half-siblings I may have." In another entry he described competition as "an artificial environment designed to create a rank and order that does not have to exist in our daily lives."
Muhammad was born on Muhammad Ali Boulevard in Louisville, where the Champ once held the future champ in his arms. Sabir's mother, Jessica, made a pilgrimage to Mecca with her friend Khalila Ali, the boxer's wife at the time. After the Muhammads moved to Atlanta in 1979, Jessica enrolled Sabir in the City of Atlanta Dolphins, a largely-minority swim club. "I liked swimming's solitude, its internal dialogue," Sabir says. "I didn't know there were white kids, just other kids having fun like me." He learned about the racial realities of his sport when his father, also named Sabir, a correspondent for the weekly Muslim Journal, explained to his son why he had written an article condemning Al Campanis's remark that blacks weren't good swimmers because they lacked buoyancy.
A two-time state high school champion, Sabir was a Stanford sophomore, fresh off a month of fasting for Ramadan, when he bombed at the '96 U.S. Olympic trials. He wanted to quit the sport until he saw Ali light the cauldron at the Games. After earning a degree in international relations with a 4.0 GPA, Muhammad moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where he bonded with coach Jonty Skinner, a white South African and former world-record holder in the 100 freestyle who missed the 1976 Olympics because his country was banned from the Games for its apartheid policies. Muhammad, who is known for his practical jokes, was soon hacking into Skinner's computer, leaving pictures of himself in Skinner's files, and sending Skinner's shoes afloat on a kickboard in the pool.
Impatient with the training center's regimented lifestyle, Muhammad recently moved to Hawaii, where he eats poi with nearly every meal and answers the phone "Duke speaking" in honor of Duke Kahanamoku, the island's Olympic swimming legend. Last summer he met a Baywatch producer who offered him his breakthrough part. Amid this paradisiacal life Muhammad says he regrets only his lack of an Olympic berth and a steady girlfriend. Certainly, both are attainable goals for such a freethinking freestyler and social butterflier.
Steps in the Right Direction?
As the stormiest year in the history of the modern Olympics drew to a close—a year in which the Salt Lake City bribery scandal and subsequent revelations of widespread corruption shook the Olympic movement to its core—the International Olympic Committee convened last week in Lausanne, Switzerland, to vote on a slate of reforms. Opening the session on Saturday, Juan Antonio Samaranch, the IOC's 79-year-old president, stepped to the podium bearing a 200-page booklet of 50 reform proposals. In what some saw as a symbolic moment, Samaranch grabbed the booklet by its see-through plastic cover, which came off, allowing the booklet to fall to the floor. Maybe the IOC isn't ready for transparency after all.
While not as sweeping as Samaranch and his p.r. staff would want the world to believe, the reforms enacted in Lausanne were significant. With startlingly little opposition, the committee approved each of the 50 proposals—among other things, banning visits by its members to bidding cities, instituting renewable eight-year terms (instead of lifetime ones) for new members and adopting plans to, for the first time, have 15 active or recently retired athletes added to the membership (10 were named in Lausanne).
Though this was one of the first IOC sessions open to reporters, the real action took place behind the scenes. Last Friday evening Samaranch encountered a pair of athlete nominees, retired U.S. volleyball player Bob Ctvrtlik and former Norwegian speed skater Johann Olav Koss, at a fencing exhibition and told them that the IOC's executive board wanted to limit athletes to one four-year term instead of allowing them to serve eight years, as the athletes' commission had proposed and had assumed was being put before the IOC. Ctvrtlik then cornered Gilbert Felli, the committee's director of sports, and argued that a four-year term would effectively keep athletes off the IOC's powerful executive board (whose members are chosen from the IOC membership and serve four-year terms). "How could athletes be elected to tire executive board if their entire terms were only four years?" Ctvrtlik said. "This made what we'd worked for worthless."