London — With nearly three million Muslims living in Britain, the observance of Ramadan here is not generally a notable occurrence. Shops are open, businessmen go to work at the regular times and, to outsiders, life seems ordinary enough, save for the absence of eating or drinking from dawn until sunset.
But the Olympics have made this far from an ordinary summer in England, so the arrival of Islam’s holiest month has led to a variety of issues for the estimated 3,000 Muslim athletes and officials at the Games. Questions still linger about how athletes should deal with training, competing and fasting (or whether it is proper for Muslim athletes to fast at all).
Restrictions for Ramadan are laid out in the second chapter of the Koran, where it is written: “And whosoever of you is present, let him fast the month, and whosoever of you is sick or on a journey, a number of other days.” In many instances, the second part of that passage has been the rationale for athletes competing at the Olympics to postpone their fast until after competition.
Religious leaders in some nations have issued fatwas, or blanket rulings, about an Olympic athlete’s obligation. In Egypt, for example, the fatwa committee at Al Azhar University in Cairo said flatly that athletes did not have to fast at the Olympics.
In most instances, however, the choice is left to the athlete. The United States does not have a Muslim athlete on any of its teams, but the host nation has several: the British track and field athletes Abdul Buhari and Mo Farah decided to postpone their fasts. Moe Sbihi, a British rower, is also not fasting, but after consulting with scholars, he is compensating by doing charity and will donate 60 meals to the poor for each day of fasting he misses.
The Moroccan men’s soccer team features 18 players and 4 alternates, all of whom are Muslim. Nine players are observing Ramadan; the other 13 have postponed their fasts.
For Coach Pim Verbeek, who is from the Netherlands and not Muslim, that breakdown has required an increasingly difficult scheduling dance. During training, Verbeek held two sets of meals and two different practices: one practice at noon, when the fasting players were generally sleeping, with the other at 6:30 p.m., when the fasting players were able to work because they would follow it by breaking their fast a few hours later.
In other words, while most teams at the Games were doing everything they could to become more unified as competition approached, Verbeek’s team had split in two.
“Our full team hasn’t eaten a full meal together since July 20,” Verbeek said in an interview. “It’s interesting, I suppose, but it’s not very good timing.”
Then there are performance concerns. Dehydration is the primary problem for athletes. Verbeek said his team trainers had to double-check which players they were tossing water bottles to during games to make sure they were not offering water to the observant players.
The lack of fluids can sometimes also cause particularly awkward moments during standard postmatch drug testing.
After Morocco tied Honduras, 2-2, in a match last week, two Moroccan players “found it more or less impossible” to provide a urine sample to test collectors, Verbeek said. The players finally produced samples and left the stadium more than two hours after the match ended.
“This has been quite the experience,” Verbeek said.
Opinions differ on just how much humans are affected by fasting. Roy J. Shephard, a Canadian scholar, wrote in a recent article for The British Journal of Sports Medicine that “research conducted to date shows relatively minor effects of Ramadan observance upon athletic performance, health or safety,” though he added the caveat that athletes must hydrate properly overnight and get sufficient sleep.
Shephard also noted that the studies did not necessarily account for the strain of an extended competition over many days. Additionally, he wrote that most studies of athletes were done when Ramadan occurred in the winter months, and this is the first time in 32 years that it has come during the Summer Games.
With the predawn meal, or suhoor, generally coming somewhere around 3:30 a.m. and the sunset meal, known as iftar, taking place closer to 9:30 p.m. in London, Olympics organizers have taken measures to accommodate Muslim athletes. Cafeterias are offering halal foods 24 hours a day and special snack packs are also available for Muslim athletes to take with them.
While preferred foods vary widely depending on what region of the world a Muslim hails from, the packs are expected to include dates, which almost all Muslims eat at iftar as a reminder of how the Prophet Muhammad broke his own fast. In much the same way that many Jews eat apples and honey at Rosh Hashana but rarely any other time, Salman Farsi, the media officer for the East London Mosque, said Ramadan was “the only time during the year when date consumption goes very high all over the world.”
Farsi said the general Muslim population here had been observing Ramadan relatively smoothly in spite of the Olympics.
“For the regular person, it is not as unique a circumstance as an athlete,” Farsi said, though he added that the layman, like the athlete, would probably also prefer Ramadan not to come during the summer months because it means the days — and the fast — are longer.
“It means we cannot eat for a longer time, but it is based on the lunar calendar, so every year, it moves up,” he said through a small laugh. “But you know what that means? That means eventually, it will probably coincide with the Winter Olympics, too.”