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July 27, 2012

The London Olympics in Ramadan

The Canadian Charger

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Because the 2012 London Olympics will coincide with Ramadan, the most holy month in the Islamic calendar, Muslim athletes will be expected to fast from sunrise to sunset for the entire duration of the games.

Ramadan requires Muslims to observe a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset, meaning no food or even water can pass their lips while the sun is up. Although exceptions are made for young children, pregnant women and the sick, athletes competing in the 36 sports at London 2012 will for the most part not be exempt.  This year Ramadan will take place from July 20 to August 18, while the Olympics run from July 27 to August 12.

As a result, up to 3,000 Muslim competitors may be aiming for a gold medal while avoiding food and water for around 16 hours a day – a difficult situation for anyone, let alone an Olympic athlete.  Although athletes are allowed to defer their fasts until a later date, many are expected to honour the religious period and fast during daylight hours throughout the games.

While many Muslim athletes have said they will observe the fast, some are willing to take a more flexible approach.

The 17-year-old Qatari sprinter Noor al-Malki is not expected to challenge for medals in the women’s 100m, but she will be aiming to break her own national record.

“It will be difficult, but it is Ramadan,” Ms. al-Malki said. “You have to respect Ramadan. But I want to make a new national record, so if there is a problem with that I will not observe Ramadan.”

Moroccan swimmer Sara El-Bekri has already made up her mind not to fast during this year’s Ramadan. “Our physical ability is undoubtedly impaired,” said the African champion of the 50 metre and 100 metre breaststroke.

“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.”

During a meeting in 2009 to review the evidence, the nutrition working group of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) agreed that fasting could create problems in some sports, though the impacts are far from clear.

For example, studies on soccer players found no deterioration in sprinting ability or agility, but saw a fall in aerobic capacity, endurance and jumping ability. Another recent study in the same journal found that moderately trained Muslim men ran an average of 5448 metres in 30 minutes when fasting, but 5649 metres outside Ramadan.

"If you're running 100 metres or weightlifting, what you eat in the few hours beforehand will have no impact on performance," said Ronald Maughan of Loughborough University, UK, who chaired the IOC working group. However, he added that in events that last for more than about 30 minutes, or that take place late in the day, performance may suffer.

While the focus is often on food, dehydration may be more significant, said Jim Waterhouse of Liverpool John Moores University, UK. "Performance is less good, physically and mentally, if a person is dehydrated," he said.

To overcome such problems, it makes sense to schedule events early in the morning where possible, when all competitors will be well fed and hydrated, Mr. Maughan says.

Mr. Waterhouse agreed: "All studies that have been done on Ramadan have concluded that morning performance deteriorates less than afternoon performance."

Because of the dilemma their athletes face, some countries have decided to offer assistance to their athletes. In the United Arab Emirates the religious leaders have issued a fatwa or ruling, which allows their Olympic participants to abstain from fasting.

“There will be no pressure on anyone to fast because the Grand Mufti of Dubai, Sheikh Ahmed al-Haddad, has said that those who do not fast can make up for it after the competition,” Ali Mahdi, coach of the UAE Olympic football team, said.

The Moroccan Ministry of Youth and Sports has also asked the country’s own religious scholars to issue a similar fatwa. A decision is due in the coming days. Athletes from more conservative Islamic countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, will however be expected to stick rigidly to the rules of the holy month.

As far back as 2006 the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) recognized that with Ramadan occurring around 11 days earlier in the calendar each year, there would be an overlap with the 2012 Olympics.

The IHRC and several countries, including Turkey, Egypt and Morocco lobbied for a change to the scheduling of the Games so that Muslim athletes would not face a disadvantage. But the International Olympic Committee (IOC) refused to budge. The organization reiterated this week that the 17-day festival sport was a secular event.

In a statement, the IOC said: “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.

Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission, said: "They would not have organized this at Christmas. It is equally stupid to organize it at Ramadan.

"It shows a complete lack of awareness and sensitivity. This is going to disadvantage the athletes and alienate the Asian communities by saying they don't matter. It's not only going to affect the participants it's going to affect all the people who want to watch the Games. They won't want to travel during Ramadan and they won't want to watch sport. It's a spiritual time."

Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, an imam on the Muslim Council of Great Britain, said: "I'm sure the athletes will seek advice from their scholars. They are obviously going to be at a disadvantage because other competitors will be drinking and keeping up their energy levels. But they are athletes and I am sure they will train their bodies to cope with this. A Muslim might feel it would have been nice to avoid this month, but life doesn't stop for Muslims during Ramadan, even though they are fasting.”

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