The Iron Sheik
Faris Al-Sultan's crusade to become triathlon's first Muslim world champion
A German-Iraqi who supports the U.S.-led war, a Muslim sponsored by a brewery, an elite athlete who trains without a coach: Faris Al-Sultan defies easy categorization. But there’s one label the 27-year-old triathlete may soon wear proudly: world champion—he is a strong favorite to win at the October 15 Ironman World Championship, in Kona, Hawaii.
The son of an Iraqi father—a chemist who settled in Germany after traveling there for his Ph.D.—and a German mother, Al-Sultan was raised in Munich. But despite widespread German opposition to the war in Iraq, he was in favor of the invasion, saying that Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship had prevented him from ever visiting his father’s homeland. And while he embraces his Islamic roots, he also describes himself as “a normal German guy,” one who can enjoy the fruits of his sponsorship deal with the Bavarian brewery Erdinger. “Nothing for the water bottle,” he says, “just for after the race.”
If all goes according to plan, Al-Sultan will have a lot to celebrate post-race in Kona. He finished a close third there last year and is coming off a dominating win at April’s Ironman Arizona. “Faris clearly has the fearless attitude and physical conditioning necessary to be in the thick of the race,” says six-time Ironman Hawaii winner Mark Allen.
Although he is one of the only athletes in the world capable of winning the overall in Kona, Al-Sultan refuses to let the sport consume him. He balances his workouts—up to 450 miles of cycling, 50 miles of running, and nine miles of swimming per week—with studies toward a master’s in Arabic language, literature, and history at Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University. He also spends two months a year in the United Arab Emirates, training in temperatures up to 115 degrees. That should help in Kona’s notorious lava fields, but Al-Sultan is reluctant to handicap his chances. “The world keeps going its way, whether I win or lose,” he says. “It’s just a sport, and I can’t get crazy about it.”