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Interview: IOC Expert Discusses Ramadan And London Olympics

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Muslim Olympians Face Choices On Ramadan Fasting

The 2012 Summer Olympics in London take place during Islam's holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims are required to fast and refrain from drinking water from sunrise to sunset. How will Muslim athletes cope?
Ronald Maughan is a sports scientist at Britain's Loughborough University who heads the International Olympic Committee's working group on nutrition.

He spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz about Ramadan and the 2012 London Olympic Games.

RFE/RL: You head the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) working group on nutrition, which has been studying the implications of Ramadan fasting on the performance of Muslim athletes. It appears to be an issue that has never before been studied in such detail.

Ronald Maughan:
We deal with all of the nutrition issues that affect Olympic athletes, and of course, one of those issues this year is the coincidence of the London Olympic Games with the celebration of Ramadan. We should recognize that every year, there are many, many important sporting competitions -- including world championships and other major events -- that coincide with Ramadan. So there's nothing new about Muslim athletes taking part in major championships during Ramadan.

RFE/RL: The IOC requires that all Summer Olympic Games take place between July 15 and August 31. That made it impossible to avoid an overlap with Ramadan in 2012. Were concerns expressed within the IOC, or by any competing country, that Muslim athletes who observe the Ramadan fast might be at a disadvantage?

Maughan:
Of course it is a significant issue, and the IOC is very concerned that no athlete is disadvantaged. The dates of the Games are chosen, and were chosen, by the local [London] organizing committee. Opportunities were given to raise any objections to the schedule of events and no objections were raised at the time.

RFE/RL: Some rights groups have called for the Olympics to be rescheduled to eliminate overlap with Ramadan. What precedents are there on the issue with international athletic competitions, and what feedback are you getting from coaches and Muslim athletes themselves?

Maughan:
Where concerns and objections have been raised, they have mostly not come from athletes but come from other individuals who are not directly concerned with the Olympics themselves. The situation where perhaps most controversy has been generated has been in professional [soccer] because, of course, every year there are some major championship events taking place during Ramadan. And we are seeing more and more Muslim players taking part at the highest level in leagues like the English Premiere League or La Liga in Italy, and so on.

Every year the issue arises as to whether those players should fast during Ramadan or not. Sometimes the coach or manager says that players shouldn't fast. But of course, the manager has no right to interfere in the individual's personal religious choice. Also, they may feel that as they employ that player, they are entitled to expect that player to perform at their best.

Interestingly, when we speak to some of those individual football players they tell us, for example, they feel they perform better when they are fasting because they are more in touch with their spirituality, they are more in touch with their God, and they feel an extra motivation to perform extremely well.

RFE/RL: What kind of special preparations are being made to accommodate Muslim athletes who observe the Ramadan fast during the London Olympics?

Maughan:
The responsibilities during the Games, of course, are devolved onto the local organizing committee -- and they are very aware of the situation. So at the Olympic village where the athletes will be staying, there will be special arrangements for the predawn meal and there will be a special arrangement for the first meal after sunset. And those arrangements will extend to all the competition venues. Every effort is being made to accommodate the needs of the Muslim athletes who will be participating in London.

RFE/RL: Should Muslim athletes delay their Ramadan fast until after their Olympic events are finished?

Maughan:
This is a choice that individual athletes can make and there are different views of what the Muslim athlete can or should do during Ramadan. Some athletes will decide to postpone the fast from the days of competition and make up those fasting days later, which is permitted by many people within the Muslim faith.

So some athletes will do that. They will fast on other days but will not fast on the competition day. And for those athletes, there is no reason why performance should be affected. So really, it comes down to the individual athlete knowing and understanding both their event and how they perform in that event.
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