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Compromise key to London 2012's Ramadan clash

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Matt Slater | 17:50 UK time, Friday, 26 August 2011

Bird lovers, dog walkers, public health campaigners, taxi drivers...London's organising committee for the Olympic Games, Locog to its friends, has managed to annoy them all at one point or another in the last six years.

But fans of tufted ducks and enemies of Big Macs are one thing, upsetting almost a quarter of the world's population is another, and that is what seemed to have happened when it became apparent that next year's Games coincide with Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, a time when Muslims are expected to abstain from food and drink during daylight hours.

For the 2,500 or so Muslim athletes expected at London 2012 - not to mention the far greater number of officials, spectators, staff and volunteers - this could not be worse timing: the most important date in their professional lives, clashing with the most important time in their spiritual lives.

The reaction from some sections of the Muslim community was one of outrage at Locog's insensitivity, whilst others asked if the Games could be moved to avoid the disadvantage that fasting competitors would face.

This was, it seemed, a PR disaster, a serious blow to inter-faith relations in the UK and hardly the most sporting basis for a Games the organisers kept saying was going to be "all about the athletes".

But there was always something that troubled me about this particular Olympic "crisis" when it blew up in 2006. There was anger all right, it just felt a bit contrived. After all, the proposed dates for London 2012 were in the bid book published in 2004. The timing of Ramadan is based on Islam's lunar calendar, so it moves. But its movements are easy to track, 11 days forward every year. Muslim athletes, used to dealing with the Ramadan challenge, would have known about the clash long before it became a media storm.

It also seemed unfair to blame Locog for the scheduling. The International Olympic Committee gave the bidding cities for 2012 a seven-week window (15 July to 31 August) in which the Games had to be staged. With Ramadan sitting in the middle of this (21 July to 20 August), which ever fortnight the cities chose would have overlapped with some of the fast.

Locog's options were further constrained by a desire to get the Games comfortably into the school-holiday window, making it easier for the 70,000 volunteers needed, maximising ticket sales and, hopefully, avoiding the worst of London's traffic. So it was a tough call but not one the organisers took lightly and nobody can accuse them of ignoring the problem.

Reverend Canon Duncan Green, the Church of England's link with London 2012, was brought on board to head Locog's "Faith Services" team and he quickly established a dialogue with London's nine largest religions (a brownie point for anybody who can list them all). Working out a solution to the Ramadan issue was a priority.

The good news is that accommodations have been made. There will be a prayer room at every venue. The Olympic Village will have a large multi-faith centre, with specific areas for Muslims. And food packs will be issued to athletes and workers to enable a timely break of fast.

But Locog has had less success in tweaking the competition schedule to suit fasting athletes.

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There are two important reasons for this: one, it is almost impossible to predict which athletes or teams will be competing in any event this far out; and two, there is no ideal time for a fasting athlete to compete when there are 17 hours of daylight. Go early to give the athlete a chance to take on fuel before sunrise and they have a long wait to refuel. Go late and they can maximise their recoveries but risk starting the event dehydrated.

The sports science related to Ramadan is actually quite extensive, as hundreds of Muslim cricketers and footballers have been dealing with this for years.

I spoke to the English Institute of Sport's Daniel Kings and he explained that the evidence is pretty clear: short-term effects can be minimal, particularly if attention is paid to eating and drinking the right things, but performance does tail off and there is even an increased risk of injury, especially muscle tears.

Olympic athletes in events that require them to be a certain weight, or compete more than once on the same day, would have added problems. It simply isn't reasonable to expect peak performance over a series of days from an athlete trying to cram all his or her nutrition into seven hours of darkness. According to Kings, some might be able to cope, most won't.

But here's the thing. Ramadan might be one of the faith's Five Pillars, and therefore a basic tenet of the religion, but there is flexibility.

The very young, old and sick are exempt from fasting, as are soldiers during war, people engaged in hard labour or those making long journeys, although those latter groups are expected to make up the time later on or make some other sacrifice, such as giving to charity. And that is, in effect, what many Muslim athletes do. They either defer the fast completely or make up any missed days.

Over the last few weeks, this year's Ramadan period, we have been speaking to a number of British Muslims with Olympic aspirations for a "Destination London" report on BBC World News (you can see it above). We have also talked to Islamic scholars.

What has become readily apparent is that the choice to fast or not next year is a personal one, and not something anybody will be using an excuse for poor performance. Many have opted, with the advice of their imams, to defer because of the exceptional circumstances of next year's calendar, while others remain determined to honour Ramadan at the allotted time.

When Scotland's Eric Liddell, a devout Christian, realised a few months before the 1924 Olympics that the heats for the 100m would be held on a Sunday, he withdrew from the event, despite it being his best chance of a medal on paper.

He spent the intervening months training for the 400m, an event in which he had not been very successful. The one-lap race was at that time ran more like a middle-distance event, with competitors coasting down the back leg before sprinting for the line. As an out-and-out sprinter, Liddell knew only one way to run. He went flat out from the start and became a legend.

So the Olympics can co-exist with strongly-held religious beliefs, the key is compromise.

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  • Comment number 1.

    I think the real issue here is interpretation of the faith itself. Islam does allow you to make up Ramadan days that you may have missed through 'exceptional circumstances' after the fasting month itself. For example, you have been so horrendously sick you just physically cannot fast. So you make up the days you missed after Ramadan has finished. That is considered acceptable.

    The reason why I say this is open to interpretation is because athletes could potentially see the Olympics as a once in a lifetime experience, and therefore they could make up the days after the Olympics have finished. However, sections of the Muslim community will not see that as acceptable. Other sections will.

    I'm not an athlete so I do not what my imam would say for example. But I do believe that the Olympics is an important time for a lot of these young men and women. No matter what choice these Muslim athletes make however, I do wish them all the best for next year. Roll on London 2012.

  • Comment number 2.

    I think it's all a bit much even considering ramadan. All the other issues you discuss, like school holidays, traffic, tivket sales etc, affect everyone. The whole world can't be expected to reorganise itself to fit in with a religious observance. It's just not practical and I'm surprised anyone even considered it. It's not the world of non-Muslims' fault that Muslims decide to follow a lunar calendar and implement such a strict fast and I don't think we should even be considering it. If you want to be religious then you sort that out yourself and if you want to be an athlete then you look after that. If there's a clash, you find whatever solution suits you best, but no-one else should be put out by it.

  • Comment number 3.

    #2 - I understand your argument, and to be fair, a lot of professional Muslims do find the best solution, such as praying and breaking their fast at work for example. But don't you at least accept that it is the workplaces' responsibility to try and accommodate people of different faiths and beliefs as best as they possibly can? If there was a devout Hindu working there for example, should they not at least try to provide a pure vegetarian option in canteens? Sure the Hindu can bring food from home or find another solution, but it's all about being a bit more accommodating. The same argument applies to the Olympics, because these are professional athletes wanting to do the best they can for their countries, who are their 'employers.'

  • Comment number 4.

    2500 or so Muslims are exepcetd to compete in the games and so if REASONABLE adjustements can be made, then why not. If reasonable adjustments cannot be made then yeah the choice is upto the Muslim, either compete whilst fasting or dont compete. For Muslims their faith means more to them than the Olympic games so in this sense, most practicing Muslims will compete whilst fasting. Muslims are exempt from fasting for exceptional circumstances but i dont think competing in the games counts as one; so not fasting during Ramadan because of the games is not really an option. Hence the decision is upto the Muslims: if the games falls into Ramadan then they ought to either compete whilst fasting or not compete. Simples.

  • Comment number 5.

    As a Muslim if I was competing in the games and I knew it was not possible for the relevant authorities to make REASONABLE adjustments for me then I would happily compete in the games. Cant wait! Come on Britain!

  • Comment number 6.

    Sorry to obsess at one partuclar pointbut what are the 9 religions of London? We reckon, in no particular order; Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddishm, Sikhism, Confucianism, Baha'i, Jainism. But we are definately guessing towards the end.

  • Comment number 7.

    why didnt this cause a problem at any other Olympic games?

  • Comment number 8.

    @alexphimister this may well have caused problems but only decades back. since ramadhan is moving back about 10 days every year, in the last 30 years there has been no overlap with ramdhan and the olympics, so no problem. b4 this time, there would have been less problems since there would probably have been a lot less athletes (muslim and non-muslim) so there would have been less issue

  • Comment number 9.

    Curiously the last Olympics before 2012 to coincide with Ramadan, I think you'll find, was 1948 and London. Ramadan started around July 7, the Olympics on July 29.

  • Comment number 10.

    as a muslim, i always assumed athletes didnt fast and made them up later. This is their career and what they work they whole life for, im sure its counts as an exception. Amir Khan and mulsim majority cricket players dont fast when playing, there should be no difference here.

  • Comment number 11.

    Muslims will have the benefit of divine assistance, makes it tough on the Hindus, Christians and Buddhists

  • Comment number 12.

    Every Friday is a Religious Holiday for Pastafarians (members of The Church of The Flying Spaghetti Monster
    But I don't think it caused any problems at the last Olympics.

  • Comment number 13.

    6. Confucianism is a philosophy not a religion.
    3. Where do you draw the line in accommodating people with beliefs, although often genuinely held, which are not objective? The public shouldn't have to pay, and neither should employers unless they want to. What you do in your private is your business, but you can't expect your beliefs to regulate non-believers. That's why you build mosques and churches with your own money.

  • Comment number 14.

    Well here we are; Islam wanting special privileges again! Ramadan should not even be given a second thought by the IOC. We must stop trying to be so accommodationist, Muslims impose this on themselves - it's a choice they make.

    Are we really expected to organise the worlds largest sporting event around peoples religious beliefs? NO.

  • Comment number 15.

    Here we go again another ignorant person making accusations that Muslims want special privileges; what drivell! This is a typical but flawed accusation from people who criticise Muslims. 2500 Muslims will be competing in the games and they are NOT DEMANDING that the games be postponed they are merely and understandably open to the idea that the beginning of the games can be shifted by a few days; if it can't then it can't , no problem. But apparently merely even exploring the issue is a problem for you!

  • Comment number 16.

    Peter thats quite a myopic stance you have. It would depend if God wants them to win, he may not you see.

  • Comment number 17.

    Not sure what 'Islamic scholars' you've spoken to.. and who told you a Muslim is allowed to break their fast in order to run in a race.

  • Comment number 18.

    Why don't we just adjust the calendar for every athlete?! British weather not being the best, the dates are designed to take advantage of when British weather is potentially at its best.

    Having lived in the Middle East, non-muslim groups are expected to abide by the muslim calendar and not be seen to eat or drink during ramadan (it is illegal to do so in most nations there). While it is possible to get around it, it does make life difficult for your average westerner living out there. SO with that in mind, I suggest muslim athletes also work out how to get around the problem in a non-muslim country.

  • Comment number 19.

    I think you fail to realise that we live in a liberal secular society whilst most nations in the middle east are not liberal secular societies so it's a bit pointless you making direct comparisons like that. And I think if the olympics were held in a Muslim country and the games just so happened to occur over Christmas day, Christnas Eve, New years eve, New years day then alot more people would be asking for changed dates compared to a handful of Muslims.

  • Comment number 20.

    Rubbish, I've been in Muslim countries all of Ramandam and they eat, drink, smoke. So why are we even bothering to tailor the Olympics for them.
    When I work with them they even call me infidel! Are we allowed to do the same when they visit the UK?

  • Comment number 21.

    I am currrently living in Dubai, I have previously lived in Bahrain, and I have travelled all over the Middle East in Ramadan and at other times.

    Our Muslim friends are just like any other society, there are those that conform and those that do not. As for fasting during Ramadan, I believe it is widely practised, but the bars, clubs and restaurants certainly do cater for Muslims who drink and smoke after iftar (and maybe do not fast at all). The athletes need to get dispensation to postpone their fasting until after their events have finished. Surely that is not a problem, so why is it being made into one?

  • Comment number 22.

    So what are London's largest nine religions?

  • Comment number 23.

    Hi John Kennedy (22), Bookwormral (6) was very close, 8/9. The one he missed is Zorastrianism instead of Confucianism.

    I'm a bit pushed for time at the moment but I'll answer some of the other questions later.

  • Comment number 24.

    @6 and @23 you've missed out another rather large group.

    If you want to race race, if you don't don't.


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