Ramadan poses extra test for Muslim athletes at London Games

Updated 27 July 2012
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Ramadan poses extra test for Muslim athletes at London Games

LONDON: When Malaysian cyclist Azizulhasni Awang opted to postpone his Ramadan fast until after the London Games, the decision was all about going for Olympic gold.
Anything that might jeopardize the chance of a medal for the 24-year-old at his second Olympics had to be dealt with sensibly, he says. And going without food and drink between sunrise and sunset every day for four weeks is just too risky.
“We need to train, we need food, fluids, water,” he told Reuters during a training session at a velodrome in Melbourne with teammate Fatehah Mustapa, who will become the first Malaysian woman cyclist to ride at an Olympics.
“We’ve trained really, really hard ... to strive for the gold medal, so we’re not going to waste it. This Olympics is really important for me and Fatehah. You think we’re going to sacrifice that?“
The coincidence of Ramadan this year with the London Olympics, which starts on July 27, a week into the month-long Muslim fast, has thrown up a dilemma for the estimated 3,000 Muslim athletes expected to compete.
The Ramadan fast is a time when Muslims are required to abstain from food and drink during daylight hours. Athletes are allowed to defer their fasts until a later date, but many Muslim sportsmen and women from cultures or countries where not fasting is frowned upon may well honor the holy month.
Medical experts say that, theoretically at least, a reduction of food intake during Ramadan could deplete an athlete’s liver and muscle glycogen stores. This is likely to lead to a drop in performance, particularly in sports requiring muscle strength.
Foreseeing potential problems and working far ahead of time, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) nutrition working group convened a meeting in 2009 to review the evidence.
They came to the conclusion that Ramadan fasting could be problematic for some athletes in some sports, but the likely overall impact of Ramadan on London 2012 is far from clear.
Ronald Maughan, a sports scientist from Britain’s Loughborough University who chaired the IOC working group, agrees some physical changes are likely.
However, he also noted that observing the Muslim holy month involves mental and spiritual discipline, the effects of which should not be underestimated.
“Some individual Muslim athletes say they perform better during Ramadan even if they are fasting because they’re more intensely focussed and because it’s a very spiritual time for them,” he told Reuters.
“Their faith gives them strength and Ramadan is an integral part of that faith.” Maughan led a team of scientists who reviewed more than 400 research articles on Ramadan and selected those relevant to sporting performance. They found that “actual responses vary quite widely, depending on culture and the individual’s level and type of athletic involvement.”
“There are often small decreases of performance, particularly in activities requiring vigorous and/or repetitive muscular contraction,” the team wrote in the review, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM) this month.
But they concluded that in most situations “Ramadan observance has had only limited adverse consequences for either training or competitive performance.”
Still, experts say Azizul and Fatehah’s concerns, that fasting could dim their chances of standing on the podium at the end of their competition, are well-founded.
Jim Waterhouse, a sport and exercise science professor at Liverpool John Moores University in Britain, laments that so few studies have been done that give direct insight into how Ramadan-observing athletes may fare during the Olympics.
Het suggests looking at other similar research on fasting, such as in soccer players, or in people who are sporty but non-athletes.
A study in the BJSM in 2007 which looked at two Algerian professional soccer teams found that players’ performance declined significantly for speed, agility, dribbling speed and endurance during the Ramadan fast.
Nearly 70 percent of the players thought their training and performance were adversely affected.
Another study published in the BJSM in 2010 concluded that “Ramadan fasting had an adverse effect on performance, albeit small in magnitude, during 60 minutes of endurance treadmill running” by moderately trained Muslim men.
“It depends on the sport,” says Azizul . “If you come from skilled sport it doesn’t matter, but we (cyclists) require quite a lot of energy. I did try fasting last year during training. For the first one or two days it’s not really a huge decrease of performance, but after that I felt really flat.”
Some experts have wondered whether changing the timing of some events might be a way forward.
A Muslim 100 meters runner who is observing Ramadan and whose race is in the early part of the morning is unlikely to be particularly badly affected if he or she has been able to eat and drink up until sunrise, for example.
“But suppose you’re a decathlete and your competition starts first thing in the morning and ends at 8pm. With no food or drink in that time, that’s a long hard day, especially if it’s hot,” said Maughan.
Waterhouse notes that with many non-Muslim athlete also taking part in London 2102, and with peak television viewing times a key factor in scheduling events, changing timetables to accommodate Ramadan would be “fraught with difficulty.”
For now, his core advice would be to follow Azizul and Fatehah’s l ead and postpone fasting until after the event.
“It’s very difficult to see that a person who is a strong adherent to Ramadan could maintain a proper program of preparation for something as important as an Olympic event while fasting,” he said. “It just doesn’t fit in with the physiology.”


‘We want to make Saudi Arabia proud’: Pizzi promises better showing against Egypt

Updated 58 min 13 sec ago
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‘We want to make Saudi Arabia proud’: Pizzi promises better showing against Egypt

  • Saudi Arabia cannot progress from Group A even if they defeat Egypt in their final game on Monday
  • Wednesday’s overall performance was much improved, yet a lack of penetrative passing was obvious

ROSTOV-ON-DON: “Keeping possession of the ball seems to be the absolute and most important thing, but then when you sometimes find issues in getting the ball into your opponent’s half, you have to find other movements and ways of doing that,” said Oscar Tabarez after watching his lackluster Uruguay rely on a solitary Luis Suarez goal to eliminate Saudi Arabia from the World Cup. 
Tabarez was talking about his own team’s struggles, yet the assessment is considerably more applicable to the Green Falcons, who dominated possession and retained the ball with ease in midfield, yet for the second match running looked absolutely bereft of ideas in the final third. With Uruguay and Russia now on six points, Saudi Arabia cannot progress from Group A even if they defeat Egypt in their final game on Monday.
The Green Falcons coach Juan Antonio Pizzi confirmed he intends to stay at the helm of the side for the long-haul, yet is only too aware that the potential of this team is being hamstrung by its inability to score. He called it “our weakness”, adding that his side enjoyed “good ball possession, but no effectiveness”. They, he said, did not have the sufficient “weapons or tools” to equalize.
Pizzi’s side have found the net now just twice in their past five games and against Uruguay managed only three shots on target in 90 minutes — two of which came in added time and were so tame they would hardly have troubled the opposition goalkeeper Fernando Muslera had he been relaxing at his far post sipping a drink. In the 5-0 defeat to Russia last week, they failed to muster a single shot on target. 
Wednesday’s overall performance was much improved, yet a lack of penetrative passing was obvious. One passage of play in the opening exchanges saw Saudi Arabia complete 16 passes untroubled without the ball entering the opposition penalty box. When Uruguay finally won possession, they required only four quick exchanges to find Edinson Cavani on the left wing drilling the ball across the front of goal. 
“I don’t share that assessment,” said Pizzi, when it was put to him that his team was too slow to attack. “We played at the speed that was necessary. We need to be accurate, but if you step up the speed you lose accuracy with your passes. We had control of the game and that was why.”
Striker Mohammed Al-Sahlawi had been the focal point of much criticism from Turki Al-Sheikh, the head of Saudi’s General Sports Authority, after the Russia “fiasco” and was dropped from the side against Uruguay. So too was goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf, another who Al-Sheikh name-checked as having been at fault.
Pizzi, asked whether the scathing assessment from his bosses had forced his hand when it came to team selection, calmly dismissed the suggestion. He also ruled out the notion that administrative issues between the players and the country’s football federation had caused unrest in his squad.
“I have a list of 23 players here and they are all available to play. We are here together and pushing in the same direction. 
“I wanted — and still want — to make the Saudi Arabian people feel proud of our energy and the desire we show in matches. Unfortunately we were unable to do that against Russia and will be playing our next match without any hope of progressing. I hope now they will feel a little more proud even though we are out of the World Cup,” he said.