For the estimated 3,500 Muslim athletes going to the London Olympics this month, the pinnacle of their athletic careers will coincide with one of the most important periods in their spiritual calendar. All 17 days of the Games will take place during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims are required to fast and refrain from drinking water from sunrise to sunset. The overlap of Ramadan and the Olympics may prove a challenge to many of the observant athletes it's hard to be at your best when your fuel tank is low but in many ways, the Olympic spirit and the holy month share a core essence that makes the overlap somehow appropriate and harmonious: sacrificing the self and practicing self-control in the bid to achieve perfection.
At previous Olympics, that harmony of spirit has often been overshadowed by the more discordant realities of the modern world. Muslim athletes have repeatedly faced unwanted political obstacles as they tried to overcome the physical and psychological challenges of winning medals. They've been unfairly associated with terrorists; they've been prevented from participating because of boycotts; and some female would-be Olympians never really stood a chance of fulfilling their dreams, barred from competing by their patriarchal governments. And though in London the participation of Muslim athletes will break all previous records, politics will almost certainly force its way unwelcomed into their path.
Recent history from the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Games through the terrorist attacks in New York City, the Washington area and London, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and metastasizing threats of transnational Islamic terrorist groups has made it inevitable that Muslim athletes will receive attention related to their faith that non-Muslim athletes are unlikely to face.
Much of it is benign. There will be excitement in London to see top-ranked U.S. saber fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first American woman to compete in hijab; and boxer Sadaf Rahimi, defying the conservative customs of her native Afghanistan and a strict interpretation of Islamic law that prohibits blows to the face by boxing in front of men as well as women. British rower Moe Sbihi has consulted with religious leaders to come up with his own solution to competing during Ramadan: he will donate 1,800 meals to the poor, 60 meals per day of not fasting, to fulfill his spiritual obligations.
The first few times Ramadan coincided with the Olympics, in St. Louis in 1904 and in London in 1908, there were no Muslim athletes competing at all, so the issue of religious obligation clashing with race times never came up. It wasn't until 1928, in Amsterdam, that Egypt became the first Muslim nation to medal two golds, a silver and a bronze, in wrestling, weight lifting and diving though that same year, India's mixed Hindu, Christian and Muslim field-hockey team also won the first of its six consecutive golds.
After a 12-year hiatus brought on by World War II, the Olympics returned to London in 1948. Again, it was Ramadan, but if fasting affected Muslim athletes' participation or performance, it wasn't obvious. Not only did London see the greatest attendance of Muslim nations since the start of the Games sparked, in part, by the ability to travel more easily it was also the first time that an Islamic country, Turkey, made it into the top-10 medal count, beating Great Britain by three golds.
But those were different times, back when most people viewed Islam as just another of the world's great religions. That ended in 1972, when the Palestinian militant group Black September kidnapped and murdered 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Games. From that point on, Islam became an "issue" at the Olympics rather than simply the faith of some Olympians.
The 1980 Olympics in Moscow were no exception, when another conflict involving Muslims this time the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan pushed Islam and politics together. The Americans boycotted the Games, as did most Muslim nations. Despite all the politicization, Muslim competitors steadily grew in numbers. In Los Angeles in 1984, Moroccan hurdler Nawal el-Moutawakel became the first Muslim woman, and Moroccan, to win gold. King Hassan II declared that all girls born in Morocco on the day of her victory would be named in her honor. The Algerian response to their own gold-medal winner in Barcelona in 1992, long-distance runner Hassiba Boulmerka, was less enthusiastic. She was denounced by Algerian imams for "running with naked legs in front of thousands of men," tantamount to a death sentence in a country where hundreds of women had recently been attacked for wearing Western dress. Still, the courage of el-Moutawakel and Boulmerka has energized a new generation. Saudi Arabia, in addition to Qatar and Brunei, agreed to send a female competitor to London this year; so far, none have qualified. Olympic officials, however, are still optimistic. If one comes forth, Cinderella-like, it will mark the first time in history that women represent every country with a team at the Games.
Of all the Olympic cities in which such an athlete could make her historic appearance, London would surely be the most appropriate. No other Olympic host city has been home to as many Muslims there are just over a million living in the U.K. capital, according to a 2010 sample survey. And the Games themselves are fully geared up for Ramadan. There will be a prayer room at every residential venue, as well as a special meal immediately following sunset. The Olympic Village will house a multifaith center with special areas for Muslims. The Village's canteens will serve halal meals and will be open 24 hours so those observing the fast can breakfast before dawn. No majority-Muslim city has yet won a bid for the Olympics Turkey has applied to host the Games in 2020 in Istanbul, the fifth time the country has tried to win an Olympic bid so for now, London will take the prize of playing host to the most Muslim of Olympic Games.