Compromise key to London 2012's Ramadan clash
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.
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.