Competing in the Olympic Games is one of the toughest tests of the human body. So imagine the challenge faced by Muslim athletes who are currently fasting for up to 17 hours a day during the holy month of Ramadan.
Adherents to Islam are expected to go without all food and drink from sunrise until sunset – no easy task at a latitude where summer daylight hours are between 4 a.m. and 9 p.m.
London 2012 is the first Summer Games to coincide with Ramadan since 1980, posing a dilemma for modern athletes in an era where the science of high performance is often based on complex calorific regimes in the hours leading up to competition.
Many have sought to reach a compromise by consulting Islamic scholars who have allowed them to make penance after the Games are over. In some countries, such as Egypt, leaders in the faith have issued fatwas stating athletes would not have to fast, citing exceptions already made for those who are traveling, sick or pregnant.
“It is a matter of personal choice, for example I believe that [British rower] Mohamed Sbihi has agreed to feed 60 poor people in [his father’s homeland of] Morocco for every day he does not fast during Ramadan,” Dr Muhammed Abdul Bari, former chair of the Muslim Council of Britain, told NBCNews.com.
He was speaking at a large multi-faith iftar – the evening meal that breaks the fast – attended by more than 1,000 people in Bethnal Green, East London, on Thursday night. The event, where up to half the guests were non-Muslim, was aimed at promoting cross-cultural relations in a part of London where Islam is the most widely practised religion.
There are no known Muslims competing for the United States at London 2012 - New Jersey-based female fencer Ibtihaj Muhammed, who competes in a hijab, did not qualify for the team. However, an estimated 3,000 from other countries are taking part including Somali-born Canadian runner Mohammed Ahmed, from St. Catharines, Ontario.
“Mohammed Ahmed is Muslim and will be abiding by Ramadan after his competition at the Olympic Games, he will not fast before,” Athletics Canada’s information director Mathieu Gentes told the Globe and Mail.
However, Somali 400-meter runner Zamzam Moahmed Farah told the New York Times she would adhere to the fasting regime. “Ramadan is something we have to perform,” she said. “I’m just as fast and I will run and I don’t think it will affect me as an athlete.”
Special catering arrangements are in place inside the athletes’ village, where the 24-hour cafeteria offers halal food and is prepared for a possible post-sunset influx.
Multi-faith centers in both the athletes’ village and Olympic Park media and transport hub are set up for Islam’s five-times-a-day prayer ritual.
“We have had Olympic volunteers, catering workers, bus drivers and broadcasters here,” said Andrew Graystone, chaplain to the media at the Games. “It is a time of year when observance of Islam is at its highest, even among those who do not always practise the rest of the time.”
The issue of religious observance in sport is not new: The film "Chariots Of Fire" told the story of British runner Eric Liddell who withdrew from a 100-meter race in 1924 because a qualifying heat took place on a Sunday.
'Fasting doesn't have to mean weakness'
Muslim sportsmen at Thursday’s iftar said observance may actually help performance.
“Fasting doesn’t have to mean weakness, it can help you find strength from within,” said Colin Nell, a 27-year-old soccer coach and skills champion from London whose mother is of Palestinian and Yemeni descent.
Despite not having eaten since before dawn, he drew applause for an energetic routine of ball-balancing tricks.
“It is something you get used to, and it is surprising how easily the body adapts.”
Darren Cheesman, a member of Britain’s Olympic hockey team, said his faith helped him deal with the devastating news earlier this year that an injury meant he would not be able to fulfill his dream of competing in his home city’s Games.
“My coach said I must be mad because I had a smile on my face,” he said. “I explained to him that things are God’s will and that God is preparing something equally good or better for me at another time. Instead of training for the Olympics I have worked to get qualifications as a hockey coach and also set up my own business. My faith helped me find the perspective to overcome the disappointment.”
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