An Athlete's Ramadan Dilemma: To Fast or Not?

The London Olympics are underway, and so is the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. And that's left many Muslim athletes facing a dilemma — to fast or not to fast? For more on how athletes are dealing with this bind, host Michel Martin talks with Al Jazeera English's Lee Wellings.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we check in with former Olympic gold medalist, Dominique Moceanu. She tells us why all that glitters is not gold. She says her journey to Olympic glory shows the ugly side of elite sport. You'll hear her cautionary tale in just a few minutes.

But, first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality, and keeping with the Olympic theme, we want to look at a story where sports and religion come together. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is underway. That's where observant Muslims do not eat or drink anything from sunrise to sundown. But several thousand Muslim athletes are in London at the Olympic games and they, along with their coaches and teammates and religious advisors, must decide whether to fast and possibly compromise their performance at what will be, for many, a once in a lifetime experience.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we're joined by Lee Wellings. He is the sports correspondent for Al Jazeera English and he's been speaking with Muslim athletes about this topic. He joins us now from London, where the games are underway.

Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

LEE WELLINGS: Hello.

MARTIN: So, Lee, you were reporting that the last time Ramadan coincided with the Olympics was in 1980 when the Olympics were held in Moscow and I do not remember any discussion about this.

WELLINGS: That's right. I suppose we live in different times now where the Olympics has got bigger and bigger. The amounts of Muslim athletes that have been affected by this is around 3,000 and many athletes have had to really think this through.

MARTIN: What are athletes doing about this? What are their arrangements?

WELLINGS: Well, there's a wide range, as I discovered, and I became fascinated in this subject in affecting so many of the athletes involved, over a quarter of the athletes actually competing in the games. And it ranges compared to where they're from, what kind of sports they're doing.

You look at Egypt as an example of a nation that decided to give guidance to its athletes to talk about how it would be permissible in their eyes to break fasting. They took a lot of religious guidance on this. They spoke to high up people and clerics and people in the country who actually advised the Olympic bosses and then passed it down through the athletes.

MARTIN: I just want to clarify for people. What they're hearing in the background is you're speaking to us...

WELLINGS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...from one of the press rooms.

WELLINGS: That's right.

MARTIN: So, as you can hear, news gathering is underway. So is it accurate to say that the entire Egyptian national team has been given clearance not to fast if it would interfere with their performance? Would that be accurate?

WELLINGS: Absolutely right. And...

MARTIN: From the highest levels of the clergy there?

WELLINGS: Indeed. And, importantly, to add to that, it's not just about not fasting, but it's also about deferring, delaying when they're fasting, making this up at a later date and this is something that's really important because I think you'll find a lot of the Muslim competitors - they don't want to have to be in a position where they're thinking of not fasting. They want to fast, but they know that, to have a chance at being competitive, they've needed to seek guidance to try and find ways of dealing and coping with this.

And, in Egypt, even individuals - even though there's been this guidance throughout the team, I think one of the sailors has come up with an idea that, actually, the time of sunset in London is different to the time in Egypt, which is 7, so he's having 7 as his time and even then, he actually is not going to be completely fasting. He's going to sort of very much make sure it doesn't interfere with his sailing and his ability to actually compete.

And they really have been given this leeway and this guidance and have found it very helpful and it just shows, as well, that even if there is guidance for a team, that individuals will have, in their own mind, how they want to approach it and their own ways of when they may make this up, a different time of year, perhaps other sacrifices.

MARTIN: And by make it up - forgive me. When you say make it up, what you mean is that they will fast later, that for every day...

WELLINGS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...they don't fast during Ramadan, they are committing to fasting later in the year?

WELLINGS: Indeed. Certainly, they're looking at doing it at an opportunity that would be sooner rather than later. I think they'll be looking to actually find their own ways to compensate for not fasting during Ramadan and, you know, it's how they choose to go about that and the most obvious way is to fast at a different time and they comfortable to do that.

MARTIN: Now, Lee Wellings is the sports correspondent for Al Jazeera English. He's with us from London, where the games are now underway. He's been telling us about the accommodations that Muslim athletes have been debating as they consider how to observe Ramadan, which takes place during the Olympic games.

Now, we've read reports that some athletes are, in fact, fasting during the Olympics, that they're - the Moroccan Soccer Team will be fasting. In fact, you also spoke with athletes who have competed in international competition before during Ramadan and think that they can manage it.

WELLINGS: That's true. You've mentioned a key word there, which is team. On one hand, being part of a team gives you the chance to actually not be reliant on your own physical ability full stop. So if you're a marathon runner, or a 10,000, 5,000 meter runner, all the advice I've heard, everything that nutritionists and experts have said to me, is - I don't think they're going to be able to do this. They're certainly not going to be able to compete. It might even be dangerous.

When you're talking about a team, you're in a slightly different position. It's a sport where, physically, for instance, football and soccer is demanding, but it's not quite the same, perhaps, an expert or nutritionist will tell you, as running a long race. That said, it is still going to be demanding to an extent and you have to remember, it's not always that you're going to get a team full of Muslim players.

You're also going to get a situation where some are Muslim and some are not. And that's - you refer, I think, to Darren Cheeseman, but he has actually said that, in competitions that he's played in before, he has decided to fast, but then has looked at possible effects on the rest of the team and, if he really thinks that his performance is not up to it and he's letting them down, he's looked at trying to actually do a little bit just to keep him physically going and then will find his own way to make it up however he chooses to do so.

MARTIN: Presumably, there are those who will be observing the fast strictly. Perhaps, they are support staff and not competing athletes or coaches or something. Are there accommodations at the Olympic Village or for the entire community, people participating in the Olympics for those who are observing the fast strictly?

WELLINGS: Yes. There will be people in and around teams who - perhaps people covering the games - who actually are not competing. They're not in a physically difficult position, who will actually still be observing Ramadan. There's a giant canteen here. It's huge in the Olympic Village and they're making sure that people are catered for all kinds of time of day and night and it's partly because of the different cultures and people needing to eat the right kind of food at different times.

And, of course, people are competing at different times, as well, so that's all part of it.

MARTIN: That's all part of it, but if people feel that they must rise before sunrise to get their main meal of the day and to eat after sundown, they can do that? They can do that? They can do...

WELLINGS: Yes. They will do.

MARTIN: Lee Wellings is the sports correspondent for Al Jazeera English and he was kind enough to join us from - as you can hear - one of the press rooms in London, where he is reporting around the clock on the Olympic games, which are now underway.

Lee Willings, thank you so much for joining us.

WELLINGS: My pleasure.

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