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As the Olympic Games get under way in London, Muslim athletes from around the world face a dilemma. This is the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims refrain from eating or drinking between sunup and sundown. As NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, many worry that if they observe the fast, they will put themselves at a competitive disadvantage.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: Mazen Aziz has been training for the 10,000 meter open water swim for years. It's a grueling race. It takes an hour and 45 minutes or longer, depending on the waves or current or water temperature. He'll be representing Egypt in the Olympics, but the 22-year-old Muslim has decided not to fast.
MAZEN AZIZ: No, that would be bad.
HAGERTY: Aziz says he loses 11 pounds in a typical race, more in cold waters like those he'll be encountering in London. He usually tucks energy bars into his swimsuit. He says if he goes without food and water before and during the race, he'll forfeit his chances for a medal, or worse.
AZIZ: I don't think, like, anyone can handle that - like, anyone. You may, like, die, because you just don't have anything in your body; you're like, empty. So that would just be so dangerous.
HAGERTY: Aziz says no one would fault him for postponing his fast until after the games, not even Egyptian clerics.
To get an official ruling, we called up the hotline run by Al-Azhar, the preeminent religious authority in Egypt.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken) For English, press two...
HAGERTY: We asked this question: Do the Egyptian athletes going to the Olympics have to fast during Ramadan? Forty-eight hours later, we got the answer.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: According to Hanafi scholars, it's permissible to break fasting while traveling, if the duration will not exceed 15 days.
HAGERTY: Olympic athletes can postpone their fast, just as Muslims who are sick or pregnant can. So the athletes face a personal choice and a spiritual dilemma.
IMAM JOHARI ABDUL MALIK: Do I starve my body to feed my soul, or in this month do I starve my soul to feed my body and the appetite for Olympic gold?
HAGERTY: Imam Johari Abdul Malik serves at a mosque in Virginia. He says fasting should bring blessing, not hardship - which in this case, would be dashing the chances of a young Muslim to win an Olympic medal.
MALIK: Maybe they will only be able to compete once in their life, and so they should take the exemption that God in his mercy has offered them.
HAGERTY: After much soul searching, Mohammed Ahmed decided to take the exemption.
MOHAMMED AHMED: I can't remember the last time I didn't fast. I've been fasting since I was eight.
HAGERTY: Ahmed, who's running for Canada in the 10,000-meter race, consulted with religious scholars, family, coaches and sports doctors. His race comes more than two weeks after Ramadan begins. And by then, the doctors told him, he may have lost 2 percent of his body weight from fasting. He says he didn't want to give up any edge, especially during that all-important kick at the end.
AHMED: It's going to be a sprint. It's going to be like the world championship last year. It was like a half a second, one one-hundredth of a second. Like, that's what, like, determined it. So it's crazy.
HAGERTY: Of course, some Muslims will fast, particularly those from more conservative countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Will they be hurt? Ronald Maughan, a professor of physiology and chair of the nutrition working group for the International Olympic Committee, says maybe, maybe not.
RONALD MAUGHAN: When you first talk to people about Ramadan fasting and sports performance, the automatic assumption is that every sports performance is going to suffer. But then if you think about some specific events, it soon becomes obvious that may not be the case.
HAGERTY: Maughan says competitors in strength and power events such as weight-lifting or skill competitions such as archery might not be hampered. Time of day is also key, he says. Sprinters racing at 10 AM wouldn't feel depleted. But for others, decathletes who compete in several events all day, long-distance runners and cyclists, swimmers, soccer players who play at night, the fasting may take a toll.
MAUGHAN: Even very small effects can be the difference between finishing first and finishing last in an Olympic final.
HAGERTY: Mohammed Ahmed says he sometimes wonders how he would do if he relied on spiritual sustenance rather than food and water.
AHMED: But I'm not Superman. I'm a human being, and obviously, like, having your energy at high levels is important. It's very important.
HAGERTY: So he'll begin his fast the day after his race.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: The big opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics is on Friday. But the competition gets under way today. The first event of the games: women's soccer. The U.S. women are playing France. Host country Great Britain faces New Zealand. The Americans are playing at a field in Glasgow, the only Scottish venue for the games.
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