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.

Photo: Getty
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The Home Office made Theresa May. But it could still destroy her

Even politicians who leave the Home Office a success may find themselves dogged by it. 

Good morning. When Theresa May left the Home Office for the last time, she told civil servants that there would always be a little bit of the Home Office inside her.

She meant in terms of its enduring effect on her, but today is a reminder of its enduring ability to do damage on her reputation in the present day.

The case of Jamal al-Harith, released from Guantanamo Bay under David Blunkett but handed a £1m compensation payout under Theresa May, who last week died in a suicide bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul, where he was fighting on behalf of Isis. 

For all Blunkett left in the wake of a scandal, his handling of the department was seen to be effective and his reputation was enhanced, rather than diminished, by his tenure. May's reputation as a "safe pair of hands" in the country, as "one of us" on immigration as far as the Conservative right is concerned and her credibility as not just another headbanger on stop and search all come from her long tenure at the Home Office. 

The event was the cue for the Mail to engage in its preferred sport of Blair-bashing. It’s all his fault for the payout – which in addition to buying al-Harith a house may also have fattened the pockets of IS – and the release. Not so fast, replied Blair in a punchy statement: didn’t you campaign for him to be released, and wasn’t the payout approved by your old pal Theresa May? (I paraphrase slightly.)

That resulted in a difficult Q&A for Downing Street’s spokesman yesterday, which HuffPo’s Paul Waugh has posted in full here. As it was May’s old department which has the job of keeping tabs on domestic terror threats the row rebounds onto her. 

Blair is right to say that every government has to “balance proper concern for civil liberties with desire to protect our security”. And it would be an act of spectacular revisionism to declare that Blair’s government was overly concerned with civil liberty rather than internal security.

Whether al-Harith should never have been freed or, as his family believe, was picked up by mistake before being radicalised in prison is an open question. Certainly the journey from wrongly-incarcerated fellow traveller to hardened terrorist is one that we’ve seen before in Northern Ireland and may have occurred here.

Regardless, the presumption of innocence is an important one but it means that occasionally, that means that someone goes on to commit crimes again. (The case of Ian Stewart, convicted of murdering the author Helen Bailey yesterday, and who may have murdered his first wife Diane Stewart as well, is another example of this.)

Nonetheless, May won’t have got that right every time. Her tenure at the Home Office, so crucial to her reputation as a “safe pair of hands”, may yet be weaponised by a clever rival, whether from inside or outside the Conservative Party. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.