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
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
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 the executive board if their entire terms were only
four years?" Ctvrtlik said. "This made what we'd worked for
Fellow athlete nominees Roland Baar and Charmaine Crooks then
sat in the lobby of the Savoy Hotel with Ctvrtlik and Koss,
strategizing until 3 a.m. On Saturday morning the athletes
learned that their names were being proposed for immediate IOC
induction in Lausanne rather than at the Sydney Games next
September. Samaranch, who unlike the executive board supported
eight-year eligibility for athlete members, postponed a vote on
athlete representation until after lunch, while the athletes
pleaded their case with board members Richard Pound and Anita
Defrantz. The board assented. In the future athletes would be
allowed to serve up to eight years, but the athletes named in
Lausanne would have shorter stays in office; their terms would
be considered retroactive to the last Olympics in which they
For those who retired after the Atlanta Games, it meant their
IOC service could end in Sydney, scarcely nine months from now.
"They're scared of us because we're bright, energetic,
gender-equal people who welcome change, and we're not on the
outside anymore," said Ctvrtlik.
Samaranch's fierce campaigning for reform left little room for
dissent. Asked last Thursday what he foresaw in the Saturday
session, one IOC member said, "Unanimity. I don't like some
proposals, but I vote with the president." On Friday morning an
internal document obtained by SI was placed under hotel doors of
IOC members. In bold letters it read, "If reform proposals are
rejected, the risk of media crisis is high." Atop the priority
list was the highly contentious renouncement of visits to bid
In a brilliant stroke of parliamentary maneuvering on Sunday,
Samaranch took comments from 36 members, many of whom spoke in
favor of visits, and then altered the wording of the
recommendation so that members would have to raise their hands
to vote in favor of visits (read: in opposition to Samaranch)
rather than against visits as in the original wording. In the
end a measure that would have passed anyway--though by a far
closer margin--was adopted with just 10 dissenting votes.
British IOC member Princess Anne, who voted for the visits, said
the measure was "unenforceable" and told reporters, "This is
what you lot have asked for."
The assent strengthened Samaranch's mandate as he headed to
Washington, D.C., to testify on Dec. 15 before a House Commerce
subcommittee, which could still strip the IOC of tax-exempt
status in the U.S. The IOC's commitment to reform will remain on
public trial long after the transparent covers have been
Athletes on the IOC
Having Their Say at Last
Last week in Lausanne, 10 athletes were named to the IOC. Here
are the new players and what each is likely to bring to the
--Roland Baar, 34, Germany. Silver- and bronze-winning rower
wants the IOC to be subject to an independent supervisory board.
--Hassiba Boulmerka, 31, Algeria. Barcelona 1,500 meter winner
was chastised by Muslims for her running; she'll push for
athletic rights for Third World women.
--Sergei Bubka, 36, Ukraine. History's greatest pole vaulter,
the 1988 Olympic champ wants the IOC to be more involved with
introductory-level youth sports.
--Charmaine Crooks, 37, Canada. Olympic sprinter will push for
tougher antidoping legislation.
--Bob Ctvrtlik, 36, U.S. Member of the 1988 gold medal
volleyball squad, captain in '96, wants all active Olympians to
have E-mail access to their sports' decision makers.
--Manuela Di Centa, 36, Italy. Cross-country skier in five Games
wants more athletes on national Olympic committees and boards of
world sports federations.
--Johann Olav Koss, 31, Norway. Winner of four speed skating
golds will urge the IOC to pursue humanitarian aims.
--Alexander Popov, 28, Russia. Four-time swimming gold medalist
wants IOC to help fund television coverage of junior world and
regional sports events.
--Vladimir Smirnov, 35, Kazakhstan. Winner of six cross-country
skiing medals will push for Olympic host cities to include
athletes on planning committees.
--Jan Zelezny, 33, Czech Republic. Two-time Olympic javelin
champ wants faster turnover of administrators in international
COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Muhammad could become the first black swimmer to make the U.S. Olympic team.