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20 August 2010

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?

By Tom Phillips

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.

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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.