Africa: Ramadan and the Olympics – a Dilemma for Many Athletes

By Ellen Van Den Bovenkamp


Should top-level athletes fast or not during Ramadan? The Islamic month of fasting falls at the same time as the Olympic Games, and a quarter of the participants in the London Games are struggling with this question. If they fast, they might diminish their chances of winning an Olympic medal.

Fasting athletes have caused controversy during a number of European football championships. A few years ago, Moroccan football player Oulaid Mokhtari clashed with his German club when he wanted to observe Islamic religious customs and not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. His club alleged that this could have negative consequences on his sporting achievements. Besides, they said, his contract barred him from following a specific diet.

To prevent similar problems in the future, the club contacted the German Central Muslim Council which in turn got in touch with the Al Azhar Mosque, the respected Egyptian Islamic institution. It issued a fatwa that permitted professional football players to eat and drink during Ramadan. It was a practical solution, but it came too late for Mokhtari. The following season he moved to another club.

Individual choice?

With the Olympic Games about to kick off in the middle of Ramadan, the issue is being widely discussed again. It’s estimated that a quarter of the participants in the London Games are of Muslim origin. The question arises: is fasting an individual choice or do national interests prevail over athletes’ personal interests? The issue is causing considerable discussion in the Muslim world.

Oarsman Mohamed Sbihi, who has an English mother and a Moroccan father, is Muslim and will be representing the United Kingdom at the Games. A few weeks ago, he revealed that he would not fast during the Olympics. “I’m convinced that I can perform well if I fast,” Sbihi said, “but I don’t want my teammates to have any doubts about that. It could have a negative impact on our performance. “After consulting with Islamic clerics, Sbihi decided to observe the obligations of Muslims who are unable to fast during Ramadan. He will provide food for 60 poor Moroccans during the holy month.

Heated debate

The news about Sbihi’s decision not to fast sparked off a heated debate among readers on the Moroccan news site, Hespress. “Is he taking part in a sports competition,” asked some readers, “or is he going to free Palestine? Only people engaged in a holy war are exempted from fasting. “Some people even called him a kafir, a nonbeliever or apostate. One reader thought the condemnation and insults went too far. “The only thing I regret about Sbihi is that he made his decision public,” wrote the reader. “It’s a personal issue between God and himself which has nothing to do with anyone else.”

Since the Olympics are so prestigious, everyone is getting involved in the religious and sporting dilemma facing the Muslim participants: Sports Ministry officials, coaches, Islamic scholars and popular imams. A few months ago, Moroccan sheikh Zemzmi issued a fatwa exempting the Olympic football team from fasting during the Olympic Games. Zemzmi is well known for his controversial fatwas, and they’re not taken seriously by everyone. That’s why the Moroccan Sports Ministry has urged the Ministry of Religious Affairs to issue an official fatwa. A week before the Games, and two days before Ramadan began, the Council issued its ruling: the Moroccan participants don’t have to fast during the Olympic Games. The Islamic scholars issued the fatwa based on a verse in the Koran that exempts travelers from fasting.

Even before the official fatwa was announced, Moroccan swimmer Sara El Bekri disclosed that she would not fast during the Games. Unlike oarsman Sbihi, she thinks that fasting would have a negative impact on her performance. “Your physical capacities are irrefutably affected by fasting. Muslim athletes are being torn between respecting the basic principles of Islam and their desire to achieve top-level performances during the Games.


Posted by on Jul 24 2012. Filed under Sports. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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