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.

Getty.
Show Hide image

Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.