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.”


Arabian Gulf League CEO shares bright vision for the future

Updated 25 min 40 sec ago
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Arabian Gulf League CEO shares bright vision for the future

  • Waleed Al-Hosani has been Arabian Gulf League CEO for 18 months
  • Al-Hosani's vision for the league includes making attending matches more appealing to fans

DUBAI In an unassuming office 
block above an Audi showroom in Abu Dhabi, Waleed Al-Hosani is plotting the future of professional football in the UAE.
It is a task that requires creativity and the Pro League Committee (PLC) workspace is certainly conducive to that; a replica substitutes’ bench complete with leather chairs sits in the reception area, while a running track weaves its way among the desks and chairs.
The PLC office is bright and innovative, mirroring Al-Hosani, who for 18 months has been the organization’s CEO. In that time, the Emirati has already demonstrated significantly more foresight than his predecessors. Al-Hosani’s goal is to reinvigorate the Arabian Gulf League (AGL).
From the outside, it may appear that it does not need reinvigorating. UAE clubs have appeared in two of the past three AFC Champions League finals and the UAE has been ranked as the AFC’s best league for the past four years. Millions of dollars have been plowed into the AGL, with marquee players improving the standard of football and ensuring progress to the latter stages of continental tournaments.
Competitiveness is not, however, the criteria that concerns Al-Hosani.
Last season, the average attendance for AGL matches was just 2,500. The league commands some princely sums in TV rights and reportedly attracts an impressive viewership of up to eight million people. But empty stands are a source of both embarrassment and worry.
Tackling this fan apathy is the central tenet of the PLC’s new four-year plan, introduced at the start of the 2017-18 season.
“Poor attendances is the biggest issue we are facing in the Arabian Gulf League,” Al Hosani told Arab News.
“When the Pro League Committee first launched in 2007, the focus was on investing in the teams, getting better players from around the world and creating a big buzz in the media.
“Unfortunately they didn’t manage to balance this with community engagement. This has resulted in clubs becoming closed, not realizing the role they can play in the community and the responsibilities they have to preserve and develop their fanbase.”
This failure by the clubs strikes a personal chord with Al-Hosani. Raised within a stone’s throw from Al-Wahda FC in Abu Dhabi, the PLC chief spent his childhood immersed in the club.
“For many of us, Al-Wahda was our life,” he recalled. “Of course we played football there whenever we could. But beyond that they put on classes to helped us with maths and English, we went bowling — there were a lot of activities. It created loyalty between us and the club.
“Somewhere along the way, this was lost. You look around the AGL and that sort of environment doesn’t exist. I think I’m fortunate I had this experience in my childhood as I can now try to recreate that feeling for people again.”
Diverting money away from transfers and salaries and into infrastructure has been the PLC’s main aim this season. Each club now has a budget set aside for marketing and community activities, which must be designed with long-term benefits in mind.
“A lot of clubs want to use the money for 
prizes but you cannot buy loyalty. A few years ago, Al-Jazira did an amazing giveaway — if you attended matches you could win a Ferrari. It received a lot of attention and attendances exploded that season.
“It was a nice project but when it finished, the fans were gone. The people didn’t come for the club, they came for the prizes. We want to avoid that — we want to build a new, loyal generation of supporters.”
Al-Hosani is demanding that clubs focus their efforts on engagement with supporters. He wants to see community initiatives and liaison with schools and neighborhoods — in order to create a greater sense 
of belonging.
The matchday experience, too, is a target for improvement. It has been lacking for some time for UAE football fans, who have grown accustomed to broken Wi-Fi and closed food and beverage outlets. The rebuilding and refurbishment of a number of stadiums ahead of next year’s Asian Cup in the UAE will be a welcome boost for supporters.
“The improved stadiums will help many clubs,” Al-Hosani explained. “But it’s not enough — we want them to build fan zones, F&B structures — anything that improves the experience of going to an AGL match for fans.
“This change is not easy as most clubs have never thought about it, but that is why we are providing workshops and education so they can understand how to engage 
with the fans and increase the attendances.”Even the act of purchasing a ticket is now significantly easier. It seems remarkable that just a year ago, the majority of UAE football supporters could only buy a ticket when they arrived at the stadium. The introduction of a new central online ticketing system, in English and Arabic, 
has created a more efficient mechanism that also opens up the AGL 
to a wider audience.
Attracting expats and tourists to games has long been regarded as the Holy Grail for the AGL. Almost 90 percent of the country’s population are non-UAE nationals, but in the 11 years since the Pro League Committee was formed it has failed to unlock the secret of how to get them to matches. More accessible tickets is the first step, according to Al-Hosani, who has been encouraging clubs to recognize the importance of diversifying their fanbase. “Reaching out to expats is of course vitally important. I’m not sure why we are so late to do this but based on my experience when I was a fan of the league, I think the initiatives weren’t consistent. Maybe they did one campaign and then stopped for two years before doing another one. “We are working on future promotional activities. We will go to beaches, malls, public gardens — we will do kids’ activities, entertainment, competitions — we want people to know the AGL. The key is to be patient and persistent.”
A desire for quick wins has long been an issue for both the league and its clubs, who are notoriously trigger-happy with their managers. Al-Hosani and his PLC team are working hard to change that mentality and have already made admirable inroads. “As any change anywhere in the world, it’s difficult,” Al-Hosani said. “People are afraid of the unknown, this is natural. There will be resistance but there is a growing understanding that these changes will benefit UAE football in the 
long term.”