Muslim athletes and Ramadan

STEPHON JOHNSON Amsterdam News Staff | 8/10/2012, 10:21 a.m.
Muslim athletes and Ramadan

Back in 1990, when Akeem Olajuwon added an "H" to the beginning of his first name and became a more observant Muslim, it began the stage of his career where he played basketball games during the month of Ramadan. During Ramadan, practitioners of the Muslim faith go without food or drink from sunrise to sundown.

While Olajuwon's statistics didn't fall drastically while playing games during Ramadan, the issue has once again resurfaced during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.

With over 3,000 Muslim athletes in the Olympics, Ramadan and Muslim athlete have made their way to mainstream media. In late May, the New York Times ran a feature on Muslim athletes competing in this year's Olympics, leading the story with Qatari sprinter Noor al-Malki making her Olympic debut while worrying about the challenges of competing during Ramadan.

"You have to respect Ramadan, but I want to make a new national record. If there is a problem with that, I will not make Ramadan," al-Malki told the Times.

In abstaining from food, drink and other physical needs from sunrise to sunset, Ramadan is seen as a time for Muslims to reevaluate their connection to Allah and remind themselves of self-sacrifice. While the holy holiday isn't just about food and drink, the cafeterias in the Olympic Village in London offer halal foods 24 hours a day, and special snack packs are available for Muslims to take.

Muslim athletes who can't make it usually wait until the next month to fulfill their obligations. Some countries, however, like Egypt through the Al Azhar University in Cairo, have told athletes that they didn't have to fast during the Olympics. Regardless, the choice is usually left up to the individual athlete.

Al Jazeera sports correspondent Lee Wellings spoke with National Public Radio (NPR) about how Egypt handled their situation. "You look at Egypt as an example of a nation that decided to give guidance to its athletes to talk about how it would be permissible in their eyes to break fasting," he said. "They took a lot of religious guidance on this. They spoke to high-up people and clerics and people in the country who actually advised the Olympic bosses and then passed it down through the athletes."

While some have made the decision to forgo fasting this month and wait for the month after the Olympics to finish their religious obligation, the Moroccan soccer team decided that they would fast during the games. Wellings explain to NPR how it might be a bit easier to do so within a team concept.

"On one hand, being part of a team gives you the chance to actually not be reliant on your own physical ability full stop. So if you're a marathon runner, or a 10,000-, 5,000-meter runner, all the advice I've heard, everything that nutritionists and experts have said to me is, I don't think they're going to be able to do this. They're certainly not going to be able to compete. It might even be dangerous."

However, Imam Khalid Latif of the Islamic Center at New York University had a different perspective. In a column on the Huffington Post's website as part of his series of reflections on Ramadan, Latif said he looked to his sister for guidance.

"There seems to be a lot of conversation these days on Muslim athletes at this year's Olympics and the tough choice they face in fasting during Ramadan or not," wrote Latif. "Growing up, I played football and ran track since I was around 12 and the decision to fast while I was practicing or playing never really came up. This wasn't because I was particularly devout or committed to my faith per se. Mostly it was because I saw my sister fasting while she played basketball, so I just did what she did."

The ninth month of the Muslim year is always a source of challenge and celebration. Ramadan this year has proven to be no different.