Ramadan, the World Cup and the Challenge for Fasting Athletes

Ramadan, the World Cup and the Challenge for Fasting Athletes June 12, 2014

Karim Benzema, photo courtesy of AFP/Getty

I’m no athlete, not by a long shot. But last summer I was in a semi-decent groove, doing some running at the gym on a regular basis, attending various classes and such. I knew, given how much I dislike exercise, that the onset of Ramadan was going to totally derail me. I’ll do yoga classes a few times a week in the mornings, I thought. Surely I can do that.

Yep. Nope. Pacing myself through the 16 + hour fasts during the dog-days of summer was challenging. But keeping up with the kids and managing Lil D’s schedule and autism challenges while fasting was more than enough. The gym and physical exertion beyond fasting became a distant memory.

But many Muslims I know strive to maintain their exercise regimen while fasting. Sites like Nadoona Extreme (a  DVD workout series for women as well as fitness and health tips from Nadoona Vice President Zainab Ismail) offer Ramadan fitness and health workshops and advice to help those looking for ways to make the physical fasting and exercise better in order to free up the mind for more worship and spiritual connections.

Professional Muslim athletes take various approaches to playing and practicing during Ramadan. During the last Summer Olympics, some chose to play through while fasting while others decided to miss the fasts during their events and make them up later. A film released four years ago focused on the football players in the predominantly Muslim high school of Fordson in Dearborn, Michigan. In “Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football,” coach Fouad Zaban  chose to flip the practice schedule to post-Iftaar at night, in order to relieve his players from having to fast and do rigorous practice in the heat of summer.

This dilemma/challenge is once again in the news with the start of the World Cup today. Ramadan doesn’t start this year until about the 28th (If you don’t know the basics about Ramadan, click here for Ramadan FAQs to be in the know. Go ahead. Click over. I’ll wait. Done? Great!). By that time, the second round of the World Cup will be underway, which may affect the fasting plans of several Muslim players, should their teams make it to the second round:

France stars including Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, Mamadou Sakho of Liverpool, Arsenal defender Bacary Sagna and Newcastle’s Moussa Sissoko are all practising Muslims.

Meanwhile, Ivory Coast brothers Yaya and Kolo Toure – of Manchester City and Liverpool respectively – former Arsenal striker Gervinho and Newcastle midfielder Cheick Tiote are also Muslim.

The majority of the Bosnia squad – including Manchester City frontman Edin Dzeko – are followers of Islam, as are Belgium’s Premier League duo Marouane Fellaini and Moussa Dembele, Switzerland’s key man Xherdan Shaqiri and Arsenal and Germany playmaker Mesut Ozil.

One piece of good news for those players is that there are currently just 11 hours of daylight in Rio de Janeiro, compared to nearly 17 in the UK.

Some Muslim players have sought permission to eat and drink during Ramadan but some, such as Kolo Toure, are intent on sticking to the practice of fasting.

It’s the first time Ramadan and the World Cup have coincided since 1986. Toure says that the fasting is manageable while practicing and playing, and he thinks it will make him stronger:

“Speaking last year, Toure explained: ‘You definitely need discipline. For me, the first five days are difficult but after that, the body just starts to [adapt] and you feel really happy.

‘You clean your body as well and you feel even stronger after Ramadan. I think it’s amazing how Ramadan can make you really strong.

‘I’ve been observing Ramadan during all the years I’ve been in football. It’s very important that you eat well. It’s important that you eat the right food because you can gain weight or you can have less food in your body.

‘That’s why you need to drink very well. You also need to be aware of what you are doing, because your body is missing things. With the doctor and all the people in the club, we try to work on that. They give me things that I can take to help me feel better.’”

I don’t know how these athletes do it. My sorry self couldn’t even maintain yoga classes last Ramadan. More than anything, it’s amazing what the body can accomplish when the mind is determined to make it so. It really is up to us – what we want to give and receive in Ramadan. May Allah (swt) make it easy for these athletes.  Game on!


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