Ramadan observance a challenge for Muslim athletes
London • It's 10:10 a.m. The men's cycling road race began 10 minutes ago and bikers zoom through Fulham Broadway in a massive clot. Thirty seconds later they're gone, and so is the crowd. The security guards, however, will remain until the bikers loop back in five hours. They've been here since 2 a.m. and their shift ends at 9 p.m.
They'll be on their feet the entire time, and they won't have eaten a thing.
Naz Same, from Pakistan, and many of her fellow security guards are fasting for Ramadan, which began on July 20. Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, requires all observant Muslims to fast during daylight hours.
Despite operating on no food and very little sleep, their spirits remain miraculously high. "Working at the Olympics is like a dream," Same said. Allama Iqbal, Same's fellow guard, says fasting gives him spiritual strength to do his job better. "Eventually you forget you're hungry," he said.
In theory, this is precisely the kind of multiculturalism that gives the Olympic spirit its depth. The question is whether spiritual strength can also help the athletes do their jobs better. More than 3,000 Muslim athletes are grappling with fulfilling their fasts while competing in the London Games.
It's not the first time that Ramadan has coincided with the Olympics. In 1980, Tanzanian track star Suleiman Nyambui took silver in the 5,000 meters while fasting. "Once you decide to do something, Allah is behind you," he told the Huffington Post. Nyambui isn't alone; many Muslim athletes have competed while fasting, saying that Ramadan improves discipline and focus, and therefore enhances their performance.
Still, many religious authorities have encouraged athletes to eat. Sheikh Ali Gomaa, grand mufti of Egypt, emphasized, "If one is ill or traveling, an equal number of other days may be substituted" (Quran 2:184). Clerics in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have agreed that this exemption applies to Olympic athletes.
Mohamed Sbihi, Britain's first Muslim rower, is taking a different approach. Sbihi has elected to buy 1,800 meals for Moroccan street children in place of risking his own Olympic dream, as well as those of the seven other men in his boat. "It is written in the Quran that those who are unable to fast either have to feed 60 people or fast for 30 days for every day that they miss intentionally," Sbihi told the Daily Mail. "That worked out at 1,800 people or five years of fasting."
Morocco's soccer team used to playing during Ramadan has decided to fast together, against the behest of its coach, Pim Verbeek. "We must fast because this is an obligation and I think that God will help us on the day of the games," said goalie Yassine Bounou to AFP.
Other athletes have adjusted their schedules for Ramadan. Judo star Hamid Alderei is training only after dusk. But the long summer days mean that dusk arrives around 9 p.m. Egyptian sailor Ahmed Habash has remedied this problem by fasting according to sunset in Egypt; he can eat starting at 7 p.m.
Coaches have found it difficult to persuade athletes not to fast, but some have come to the conclusion on their own. For Jordanian marathon-runner Methkal Abu Drais, fasting while training proved impossible.
"I tried after I arrived in London to train while I was fasting but I realized it is very, very difficult because I'm taking part in a race that needs a lot of energy," he told AFP.
The Olympic Village is ready to accommodate the athletes, whatever their decision. It has provided quiet rooms for prayer and halal food, and dietitians are on staff to plan meals for the athletes.