As the sun set on Thursday, millions of Muslims worldwide began the holy month of Ramadan, when fasting during daylight hours is a religious requirement.
Included in this group are more than 3,000 Muslim athletes and officials attending the London Olympic Games, faced with the challenge of balancing religion with athletic training.
The absence of food and water for about 17 hours during the British day could spell disaster for the last-minute preparation of athletes like Somali-born Canadian Mohammed Ahmed, a 10,000-metre runner from St. Catharines, Ont.
Khaled Belabbas will fast while competing for Algeria in the steeplechase, because for him religion is a bigger part of his life than sport. “I will fast like I always have. It will not be a novelty for me,” he said. He will just feel more exhausted when he crosses the finish line, he said.
Others strike a compromise. British rower Mohamed Sbihi will delay Ramadan observance but do his own special penance. He consulted an Islamic cleric and will donate 60 meals to the poor in his father’s homeland of Morocco for every day of Ramadan he misses fasting.
But the Canadian Mr. Ahmed, 21 – and many others – will make use of an exemption or deference that exists in the Koran. The sick, the old, pregnant women and travellers are permitted to observe the sacrifices at a later date, according to Ramadan information on the Islamic Foundation of Toronto’s website. As travellers, most athletes can delay Ramadan’s requirements.
“Mohammed Ahmed is Muslim and will be abiding by Ramadan after his competition at the Olympic Games, he will not fast before,” said Athletics Canada’s information director Mathieu Gentes. “Mo is the only guy on our team that falls into that category.”
The 10,000-metre final is on Aug. 4.
This is not the first time that religious observance has been an issue in sport. Scottish sprinter Eric Liddell, a devout Christian whose story was told in the film Chariots of Fire, withdrew from the 100-metre Olympic race in 1924 because a qualifying heat took place on a Sunday. Sandy Koufax, of the Jewish faith, declined to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series for the Los Angeles Dodgers because it fell on Yom Kippur.
For the 2012 Games, the International Olympic Committee gave the bid cities a window of July 15 to Aug. 31 in which the Games could be staged, allowing more than a week on either side of Ramadan. Joanna Manning Cooper, spokeswoman for London 2012, said six years ago that organizers “did know about it when we submitted our bid and we have always believed we could find ways to accommodate it.”
When London’s organizing committee released the Games schedule, also six years ago, the U.K.-based Islamic Human Rights Commission lobbied to have London’s Games shifted in the calendar so the July 27-Aug. 12 Olympics would not overlap with Ramadan, which runs until Aug. 18. The overlap would put fasting Islamic athletes at a disadvantage, the human rights group said.
The IOC turned down the request on the grounds that the Olympics is a secular sports event which has ties to no religion. The organization reiterated that this week in a statement: “The Olympic Games brings together people of all religions and beliefs. It goes without saying that some days (Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays) present difficulties for those who practice certain religions.”
A depleted and off-schedule intake of food and fluid during Ramadan can cut an athlete’s liver and muscle glycogen stores, leading to decreased performance, some athletes say.
In 2009, the IOC nutrition working group reviewed the evidence and came to the conclusion that Ramadan fasting could indeed be problematic for athletes in some sports. But sport scientist Ronald Maughan of Loughborough University in Britain, who chaired the IOC working group, noted: “Some individual Muslim athletes say they perform better during Ramadan even if they are fasting because they’re more intensely focused and because it’s a very spiritual time for them.”
The Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) said this was not a new issue for the athletes and the national Olympic committees. Dealing with religious practices is up to each athlete and his or her personal beliefs.
“We don’t pro-actively ask athletes or team members what their creed or religious beliefs are,” said Jane Almeida, the COC’s manager of media relations.
Local organizers have made efforts to accommodate the multicultural makeup of the Olympic family. A multi-faith centre in the Olympic village will have a dedicated Muslim prayer facility for men and women. A full team of Muslim clerics will be available to athletes and officials. Faith rooms are also provided at the rowing and canoe sprint village and the sailing village along with chaplaincy service. Halal meat and meals will be available at all times for athletes in their dining facilities.
But for many Muslim athletes, the Games still present a wrenching decision. Moroccan swimmer Sara El-Bekri has made up her mind not to fast during this year’s Ramadan.
“Our physical ability is undoubtedly impaired,” the African champion at 50- and 100-metre breaststroke told international news site France 24. “We are split between the desire to respect one of the five pillars of our religion and the need to arrive in London in the best possible physical condition to compete at the Olympics.”