Is Ramadan a threat to Muslim success at London 2012?

Muslim Olympians will have to decide whether or not they fast during 2012, but will it cost them?

The Muslim-convert Pakistan cricketer Mohammad Yousuf returned to the Test arena at the Oval in London this week -- and promptly drew attention to the debate about fasting and professional sports when he had to retract a statement about playing cricket during the Islamic holy month:

It is a sin to not fast during Ramadan for a Muslim. I don't think cricket should be organised during Ramadan, when one should focus on his religious obligations. I will never play cricket in Ramadan.

Having scored a half-century in his first return innings against England today, Yousuf didn't quite carry through. But he did not decide to skip his fast -- the batsman will refrain from eating or drinking from sunrise to sundown. It appears he can manage without the sustenance that athletes usually need: he notched up Pakistan's top first-innings score.

The London 2012 Olympics are controversially due to coincide with Ramadan. Will this affect the performance of Muslim athletes? The evidence is divided.

A now-infamous saga involving José Mourinho and Inter Milan's Sulley Muntari erupted during Ramadan last year. Having substituted the Ghanaian midfielder after just 30 minutes on the pitch, the Inter manager blamed Muntari's weak performance on the player's fast.

However, other top athletes have consistently competed while fasting without suffering any ill-effects. The South African cricketer Hashim Amla even argues that playing during Ramadan is an advantage:

"Yes, it does affect the matches and training -- positively mostly -- Alhamdulillah," he says. "People get amazed when I tell them that I have learned so much in my game while I had been fasting."

Manchester City's Kolo Touré, also a devout Muslim, has fasted throughout the beginning month of the Premier League.

"It doesn't affect me physically," Touré admits. "It makes me stronger. You can do it when you believe so strongly in something. A normal human can be without water for much longer than one day."

Touré highlights a crucial point here. Muslims can garner great strength from prayer and fasting during Ramadan. The central focus of the holy month is reaffirming and strengthening one's individual bond with God. The positive effects of this process need not be left at the stadium gates. Just as a lack of water or sugars may disadvantage an athlete, so they might benefit from the heightened focus and energy brought about by spiritual cleansing.

Bespoke meal timetable

This will be tested when Muslim athletes compete at the Olympics. Many of the long-distance runners are North African Muslims -- and I have to admit some scepticism about the chances of a 15,000m runner who chooses to compete without water or food.

Joanna Manning-Cooper, spokeswoman for the London Games, claimed that "we have always believed that we could find ways to accommodate it".

A few reasonable alterations can be made, such as programming the long-distance races for the evening sessions, or scheduling certain events for the earliest morning slots. But in many cases, Muslim competitors who decide to fast will be denying themselves the aid of hydration and sustenance.

Some Muslims, such as Mo Farah, Team GB's 5,000m and 10,000m European gold medallist, will put their fast on hold during the Games. Farah appears to accept that he can't do without liquid or solids while competing. Though some may see it as a "sin", it is acceptable to postpone the fast if undertaking hardship -- including long journeys and other physically demanding exploits such as sport.

However, even this theory was recently contested by the Iranian Football Federation. Ali Karimi, dubbed "Asia's Maradona", was recently sacked by his Tehran-based team Steel Azin FC, having refused (somewhat abrasively) to fast during Ramadan.

Ultimately, the decision must be made by the individual athlete. But the example of sportsmen -- Amla, Touré, Yousuf -- managing to excel while fasting shows that it need not be career-defining. Perhaps Muslim athletes will not need to plan an alternative period of fasting in 2012.

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Building peace in a dangerous world needs resources, not just goodwill

Conflict resolution is only the first step.

Thursday 21 September is the UN-designated International Day of Peace. At noon on this day, which has been celebrated for the last 25 years, the UN general secretary will ring the Peace Bell on the UN headquarters in New York and people of good will around the world will take part in events to mark the occasion. At the same time, spending on every conceivable type of weaponry will continue at record levels.

The first couple of decades after the end of the Cold War saw a steady reduction in conflict, but lately that trend seems to have been reversed. There are currently around 40 active armed conflicts around the world with violence and suffering at record levels. According to the 2017 Global Peace Index worldwide military spending last year amounted to a staggering $1.7 trillion and a further trillion dollars worth of economic growth was lost as a result. This compares with around 10 billion dollars spent on long term peace building.

To mark World Peace Day, International Alert, a London-based non-government agency which specialises in peace building, is this week publishing Redressing the Balance, a report contrasting the trivial amounts spent on reconciliation and the avoidance of war with the enormous and ever growing global military expenditure.  Using data from the Institute for Economics and Peace, the report’s author, Phil Vernon, argues that money spent on avoiding and mitigating the consequences of conflict is not only morally right, but cost-effective – "every dollar invested in peace building reduces the cost of conflict".

According to Vernon, "the international community has a tendency to focus on peacemaking and peacekeeping at the expense of long term peace building."  There are currently 100,000 soldiers, police and other observers serving 16 UN operations on four continents. He says what’s needed instead of just peace keeping is a much greater sustained investment, involving individuals and agencies at all levels, to address the causes of violence and to give all parties a stake in the future. Above all, although funding and expertise can come from outside, constructing a durable peace will only work if there is local ownership of the process.

The picture is not wholly depressing. Even in the direst conflicts there are examples where the international community has help to fund and train local agencies with the result that local disputes can often be settled without escalating into full blown conflicts. In countries as diverse as East Timor, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Nepal long term commitment by the international community working with local people has helped build durable institutions in the wake of vicious civil wars. Nearer to home, there has long been recognition that peace in Ireland can only be sustained by addressing long-standing grievances, building resilient institutions and ensuring that all communities have a stake in the outcome.

At a micro level, too, there is evidence that funding and training local agencies can contribute to longer term stability. In the eastern Congo, for example, various non-government organisations have worked with local leaders, men and women from different ethnic groups to settle disputes over land ownership which have helped fuel 40 years of mayhem. In the Central African Republic training and support to local Muslim and Christian leaders has helped reduce tensions. In north east Nigeria several agencies are helping to reintegrate the hundreds of traumatised girls and young women who have escaped the clutches of Boko Haram only to find themselves rejected by their communities.

Peace building, says Vernon, is the poor cousin of other approaches to conflict resolution. In future, he concludes, it must become a core component of future international interventions. "This means a major re-think by donor governments and multilateral organisations of how they measure success… with a greater focus placed on anticipation, prevention and the long term." Or, to quote the young Pakistani winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousufzai: "If you want to avoid war, then instead of sending guns, send books. Instead of tanks, send pens. Instead of soldiers, send teachers."

Redressing the Balance by Phil Vernon is published on September 21.   Chris Mullin is the chairman of International Alert.