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July 10, 2012

Ramadan Olympics Challenge Muslim Athletes

by Al Pessin

LONDON — When the summer Olympic Games open in London later this month, Muslims worldwide, including many elite athletes, will be observing the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Muslim Olympic hopefuls face the prospect of competing at the highest levels while abstaining from all food and drink during the long days of the London summer. And, that’s not their only challenge.

Observant Muslims wake up in the middle of the night to eat before the fast begins. In London, the Ramadan pre-dawn meal will be at about four o’clock in the morning.  

However, sleep deprivation might be the bigger problem for athletes.

“During the month of Ramadan, athletes - or those who want to keep the fast - they have to wake up in the early morning to eat something," says Muhammad Abdul Bari, the director of London’s biggest mosque and a member of the London Olympic Organizing Committee. "That means they will have to deprive themselves of sleep.  And, how that will affect [them] depends on individual resilience, individual practice, determination and spirit.”
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Many Muslim athletes will be unaccustomed to the long summer days at London’s northern latitude, which this year results in a 17-hour fast.

The interpretation of Ramadan rules varies, but there is no automatic exemption for athletes.  According to Bari, Muslim athletes deal with this problem for some competition almost every year.

“It depends on [the] individual athlete and their national Olympic team," he says. "And probably those who are practicing [Muslims], they will ask the scholars, theologians, as to what they can do.”

Olympic organizers are making an effort to help Muslim Olympians cope. In addition to providing Halal food 24 hours a day, special evening snack packs for breaking the fast will be available at all venues and a team of chaplains will be on hand to help.

Tens of thousands of spectators and staff members will also be observing the fast.  

The chief chaplain of the London Olympics says officials are making allowances for Muslim staff members.

“We’ve done a staff managers briefing to ensure that staff who are observing Ramadan and fasting are not in the middle of a car park in sunshine all day," says Canon Duncan Green of Britain’s Anglican Church, "or not on a very strenuous job where they are going to need lots of liquid refreshment.”

Canon Green says the 2012 Olympics were bound to overlap with Ramadan, because of  Olympic Committee requirements and the need to make use of transport assets and volunteers available in London during the summer vacation season.

But the Muslim Olympic athletes, spectators and staff members will not be alone in facing the effects of Ramadan, considering all of the coaches, cooks, doctors and dozens of Muslim Olympic chaplains standing by to help them.