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Fasting Muslim athletes face Olympic hurdle of Ramadan

Hundreds of Muslim competitors at this summer’s Olympic Games are preparing to take on the tough challenge of winning gold while respecting the festival of Ramadan, which forbids them from eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset.

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Avoiding food and water for around 16 hours a day would not normally be in the training manual for any successful athlete. But hundreds of competitors at London 2012 are getting set to bid for gold while doing just that.

Up to 3,000 Muslim sportsmen and women may have to make the challenging sacrifice because this year’s summer Olympic Games coincide with the festival of Ramadan.

Ramadan requires Muslims to observe a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset, meaning no food or even water can pass their lips while the sun is up.

Although exceptions are made for young children, pregnant women and the sick, athletes competing in the 36 sports at London 2012 will for the most part not be exempt.

One of those competitors will be Algerian runner Mohamed-Khaled Belabbas, who will compete in the 3000m steeplechase event.

“I will not be disadvantaged”

For Belabbas, a practicing Muslim, respecting his religion is more important than sport. “I will fast like I always have. It will not be a novelty for me,” he said. The athlete believes he will not be disadvantaged because of Ramadan, but will simply feel more exhausted once he crosses the finish line.

But not all Muslims are as optimistic as Belabbas. As far back as 2006 the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) recognised that with Ramdan occurring around 11 days earlier in the calendar each year, there would be an overlap with the 2012 Olympics.

The IHRC and several countries including Turkey, Egypt and Morocco lobbied for a change to the scheduling of the Games so that Muslim athletes would not face a disadvantage.

But the International Olympic Committee (IOC) refused to budge. The organisation reiterated this week that the 17-day festival sport was a secular event.

In a statement to FRANCE 24 the IOC said: “The Olympic Games brings together people of all religions and beliefs. It goes without saying that some days (Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays) present difficulties for those who practice certain religions.

Religious practice is a question for each individual athlete and their personal convictions.”

While many Muslim athletes have said they will observe the fast, some are willing to take a more flexible approach in their quest for glory.

“Our physical ability is undoubtedly impaired”

The 17-year-old Qatari sprinter Noor al-Malki is not expected to challenge for medals in the women’s 100m, but she will be aiming to break her own national record.

“It will be difficult, but it is Ramadan,” al-Malki told AP news agency. “You have to respect Ramadan. But I want to make a new national record so if there is a problem with that I will not observe Ramadan.”

Moroccan swimmer Sara El-Bekri has already made up her mind not to fast during this year’s Ramadan. “Our physical ability is undoubtedly impaired,” said the African champion at 50m and 100m breaststroke.

“We are split between the desire to respect one of the five pillars of our religion and the need to arrive in London in the best possible physical condition to compete at the Olympics.”

Fatwas issued to help athletes

Muslim athletes like El-Bekri could theoretically claim exemption from the custom under an existing Islamic fatwa which allows “travellers” to abstain from fasting during the festival.

Recognising the dilemma their athletes face, some countries have decided to step in and help. In the United Arab Emirates the religious leaders have issued a fatwa or ruling, which allows their Olympic participants to abstain from fasting.

“There will be no pressure on anyone to fast because the Grand Mufti of Dubai, Sheikh Ahmed al-Haddad, has said that those who do not fast can make up for it after the competition,” Ali Mahdi, coach of the UAE Olympic football team, told news website Al Bawaba.

The Moroccan Ministry of Youth and Sports has also asked the country’s own religious scholars to issue a similar fatwa. A decision is due in the coming days. Athletes from more conservative Islamic countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, will however be expected to stick rigidly to the rules of the holy month.

Recognising the obvious dilemma facing some Muslim athletes, the Games’ organising committee LOCOG has arranged some logistical support. At each competition venue food will be laid on for those who break the fast at sunset, and the restaurant in the Olympic Village will be open throughout the night.

Mosques in London will also be serving meals to athletes and visitors from Muslim countries.

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