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To fast or not to fast: Muslim athletes face dilemma at Olympic Games

July 24, 2012

LONDON

Several of the world’s top Muslim athletes have announced they will delay the start of their annual Ramadan fast this year, as it clashes with the Olympic Games taking place in London from July 27-Aug. 12.

Ramadan began in the evening of Thursday, July 19, and ends in the evening of Saturday, Aug. 18.

During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims throughout the world abstain from eating, drinking, and sexual relations — leaving the 3,000 Muslims competing in London to ask an important question: to fast or not to fast?

Mo Farah, a 29-year old Somalia-born long distance runner on the British team and current 5,000 meter world champion, has made up his mind. He will begin the Ramadan Fast when the games end.

Mohammed Sbihi, a 24-year-old British rower of Moroccan descent, will provide food for 1,800 impoverished people at home to “offset” his fast. “My faith is really important to me,” he said in an interview with CNN’s Human to Hero interviewers. “I spoke to my family here in the UK and to my family back in Morocco and, at the end of the day, I am making the right decision for me and that’s to postpone my fast.”

Both star British athletes sought advice from scholars of Islam. Fortunately for them (and the Olympic Games) Islam provides practical caveats to fasting. One of the Five Pillars of Wisdom in the Quran forbids the sick, elderly, and pregnant among from taking part. Now, it seems, the list includes Olympic athletes.

Palestine’s top judo competitor, Maher Abu Remeleh, told the London Times that Muslim scholars said he should not fast. “They say that I represent a nation and not just myself, so when I return after the games I will have to make up for it.”

Sami Zreli, the Saudi coach, said he would leave it up to the athletes to fast or not. “It’s down to them as individuals,” he said.

The news about Sbihi’s decision sparked off heated debate in Morocco. One angry sports fan contacted the news agency, Hespress, and asked: “Is he taking part in a sport competition or is he going to free Palestine? Only people engaged in a holy war are exempted from fasting.”

Organizers at the Olympic Village in London have confirmed that halal food will be provided for Muslim athletes because they understand that some of the 3,000 Muslim athletes will suspend the Ramadan fast while others will not. 

Khaled Belabbas from Algeria will compete in the steeplechase. He told a Canadian newspaper: “I will fast like I always have.”

Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra, assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, told ENInews: “Normally, the lifting of the fast does not apply to athletes. But you have to strike a balance between work, rest and prayer.”

Referring to one of the heroes of the 1981 film “Chariots of Fire,” he said “We should remember that when the Scottish Christian missionary, Eric Liddell, refused to run on a Sunday during the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, God gave him extra strength and he went on to win the 400 meter gold medal.”

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