Muslim athletes attending the London Olympics this summer will face a unique set of challenges, as the dates of the world’s largest sporting event overlap Ramadan almost exactly. The Games run from July 27 through August 12, while Ramadan commences on July 20 and ends a lunar month later. So Muslims athletes will be affected both in the run up to the Games and during the entirety of the event.
In an environment as mentally and physically taxing as the Olympics, Muslim athletes will have a difficult choice to make—either compete at the top of their form or observe Ramadan and abstain from food and water from sunrise to sunset.
Although new research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that “Ramadan observance has had only limited adverse consequences for either training or competitive performance,” in an event like the Olympics, even slight changes in performance can mean the difference between winning a medal and not.
As many as 27 percent (3,000 of 11,099) of participating athletes will face the conundrum of having to choose between their professional dreams and their faith. The difficult choice has thrown a number of Muslims contestants into the spotlight, including British rower, Mohamed Sbihi, Qatari sprinter, Noor al-Malki, Malaysian cyclists Azizulhasni Awang and Fatehah Mustapa, and Iraqi javelin thrower, Ammar Mekki.
The Olympics is no stranger to religious controversy. Christian athletes have refused to compete on Sundays (for example, Scottish runner, Eric Liddell, whose story was immortalized in the film, Chariots of Fire), and many Orthodox Jews will not compete during Sabbath.
Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, said the Games are ill-timed, and their timing displays a “complete lack of awareness and sensitivity” on the part of the International Olympic Committee.
So what are Muslim athletes to do? The reaction from within the community has been mixed. Sheik Fawzi Zefzaf, a scholar at Egypt’s Al-Azhar institution, told The New York Times that athletes are obliged to fast during Ramadan. They quote him as saying:
The words in Islam are clear. The Olympics are not a necessary reason to break one’s fast.
But others, like Abdel-Moeti Bayoumi, another Al-Azhar scholar, have looked for exceptions to fasting requirements. Bayoumi and others have noted that exceptions from fasting are possible for certain people, like pregnant women, the elderly, the sick, and travelers (which most of the Olympic athletes are). Bayoumi told the Times:
The days that require strenuous physical activity, the athlete should fast if possible. But if fasting causes extreme exhaustion or weakness, then they can opt not to fast. The decision is between the athlete and God in the end.
On their end, the IOC has promised to support Muslim athletes by having a special team of dieticians on hand and preparing fast-breaking packs including dates and other traditional foods for athletes. They will also ensure halal foods are available, and that athletes can access prayer facilities.
But as Colin said in his post yesterday, the significance of Ramadan goes beyond fasting. It’s an immensely spiritual time, “a time to enact a heightened sense of kindness, an opportunity to shy away from conflict, anger, and criticism, and to ask for forgiveness.”
Whether or not they can find scholars to grant them exceptions from fasting, Muslim athletes may still miss out on the spiritual aspect of Ramadan.
Do you think Muslim athletes participating in the Olympics will have to choose between their professional dreams and their faith? Is it an unfair choice? Do they have legitimate reasons to seek exceptions to fasting during Ramadan? Is it insensitive of the Olympic Committee to schedule the games during Ramadan?