Muslim athletes and fasting during the Olympics
Egypt's flagbearer Hesham Mesbah (R) leads his delegation during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games
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Not only Egyptian athletes but also Muslim contestants -- estimated at 3,000 athletes -- will take their cues from dieticians at the London Olympics, which starts on July 27, a week into the month-long Muslim fast of Ramadan.
Muslims are required to abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk during the 30-day holy month, which began 20 July and overlaps with the Olympics. Going without food and drink between sunrise and sunset every day for four weeks may be too much for any athlete seeking standing on the podium at the end of their competition. Here the dilemma begins.
As Muslims, Egyptian athletes, including football players, are used to competing during Ramadan. Though at home they usually play or train for a few hours after breaking their fasts at dusk. That might not be the case in London, given the long summer days with the sun setting as late as 9.30pm.
According to one interpretation of the Holly Quran, it allows Muslims to break their fast if they are too ill or travelling, which athletes are if they're attending the Olympics. But although athletes are allowed to defer their fasts until a later date, many Muslim sportsmen and women from cultures or countries where not fasting is frowned upon may well honour the holy month.
"Medically, in accordance with the international studies, the performance of an athlete during fasting is certainly adversely affected," Mustafa El-Mufti, chairman of Egyptian Olympic medical delegation, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Foreseeing potential problems and working far ahead of time, the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) nutrition working group convened a meeting in 2009 to review the evidence. They came to the conclusion that Ramadan fasting could be problematic for some athletes in some sports, but the likely overall impact of Ramadan on London 2012 is far from clear.
Ronald Maughan, a sports scientist from Britain's Loughborough University who chaired the IOC working group, agrees some physical changes are likely. Nonetheless, he also noted that observing the Muslim holy month involves mental and spiritual discipline, the effects of which should not be underestimated.
"Some individual Muslim athletes say they perform better during Ramadan even if they are fasting because they're more intensely focussed and because it's a very spiritual time for them," he told Reuters.
"Their faith gives them strength and Ramadan is an integral part of that faith."
Maughan led a team of scientists who reviewed more than 400 research articles on Ramadan and selected those relevant to sporting performance. They found that "actual responses vary quite widely, depending on culture and the individual's level and type of athletic involvement."
"There are often small decreases of performance, particularly in activities requiring vigorous and/or repetitive muscular contraction," the team wrote in the review, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM) two months ago.
But they concluded that in most situations "Ramadan observance has had only limited adverse consequences for either training or competitive performance."
Balancing faith and sports is nothing new for Muslim athletes. The issue, however, is getting greater attention this Olympic year. And with no central authority in Islam, Muslim athletes turned to Islamic scholars in their respective countries for guidance.
In this regard, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, grand mufti of Egypt, stressed that the verse of the Holy Quran is clear. God says: "If one is ill or travelling, an equal number of other days may be substituted." (Quran 2:184)
"Away from sports, you are travelling humans and it gives you the exception that you may break your fast as long as you will fast the exact number of days later," Gomaa said addressing the Egyptian delegation of athletes and coaches during their meeting in the Olympic Centre in Maadi 8 July.
"Although there is justification for breaking the fast, others decide to fast during their stay in London. For them, if the daylight hours exceed 18 hours -- from dawn to dusk -- in London, one should stick to the daylight of Mecca.
"So, if they fast only 16 hours in Mecca, you should count 16 hours from the dawn of London and then eat regardless of the timing of London's dusk. And with each day passing, you should trim off two minutes from the 16 hours."
On the other hand, the Weekly asked El-Mufti about the expected reaction towards those athletes who are determined to fast, even after Gomaa's fatwa. He said: "As a doctor, I have only to advise them and not to oblige. It's their decision and they have the right to fast."
El-Mufti added that there would be special care given to those who fast and that he has already made plans for them at the Games.
"We have made all the arrangements -- the type of food and drinks the athletes will have. The days will be long, so we have to take good care of our athletes.
"Moreover, there will be an increased attention to fluids and juices. We will make sure the food is right for them as regards calories and all those things. So all this has already been arranged."
Mosques across the country are gearing up for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, as London gets busy to host the Olympics.
Officials and Muslim organisations launched the Iftar 2012 programme in London to welcome the thousands of athletes and visitors who will flood the British capital for the sporting event.
Participating mosques will serve iftar -- or evening meals to break the fast -- to visitors, welcome athletes to their premises and celebrate the event with non-Muslims.
London's Islamic Cultural Centre said it was ready for the event, having hosted group iftar meals every year.
"The logistics programme we have on a yearly basis is well established. We have a team set up to provide the food and facilitate the welcome of visitors and worshippers who come here. The logistics are very smooth," said Omar Saddique, the centre's visits officer.