Juggling sports and fasting: Muslims face a tough choice

Ali Serunkuma rigorously trains at the MTN Arena in Lugogo.

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FAITH VS CAREER. Fasting during Ramadhan is the fourth pillar of Islam. Not every Muslim fasts as there are some exceptions. However, with the energy required, what are athletes supposed to do? Abdul-Nasser Ssemugabi caught up with different athletes and sounded them out on their lifestyle

After his gruelling victory over light welter champion, Shadir Musa, at the second national trials at the MTN Arena in Lugogo and my interview with him last week, boxer Ali Sserunkuma, with sweat profusely cascading down his chin, sipped on a Red Bull can as he left for home.
“He is supposed to be fasting,” I said to myself but I saved the “harsh” question for another day. Then I recalled Hamis Ssemakula, who missed a better part of fasting last season as he prepared for the Commonwealth Games. Unfortunately, he never made it to Glasgow, which left him crestfallen.
As I combed the arena, I saw several other Muslim boxers either eating ice cream or sipping water. The grounds were fertile for further inquest into why Muslim athletes miss the mandatory fasting during Ramadhan.

Varying confessions
The duty of refraining from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset is a dilemma to many sportsmen. National welterweight champion Nasser Bukenya fasts, but only when he has no match. The burden of competition and success leaves him between a rock and hard place. “I cannot fast on a day I am boxing, lest I lose terribly; yet I cannot say ‘I will not box’ because I am fasting. The federation will not listen—it is just hard.” He loathes it, though. “But these are only worldly desires; the bottom line: we have to listen to what Allah says.”

Some, such as 2014 Commonwealth bronze medallist, Fazil Juma do not fast at all, amidst intense training. Kaggwa is barely two weeks to his Round Two Aiba Pro Boxing fight in China. Among other things, he has to improve his power, the lack of which can cost him his first fight. He says: “I have to do roadwork from 5am to 7am, then in the afternoon I am at the gym, more roadwork in the evening, tell me how can I survive without water, at least?” yet when we asked him whether he makes up for the missed days of fasting, his voice wobbled.
To avoid a clash between faith and the rigors of intense training, others such as KCCA Athletics Club runner Kassim Latigo sacrifice sports for Ramadhan. “Personally, during Ramadhan, I discontinue anything sports. But I have a friend who does fasting and sports simultaneously.”

After a terrible injury which stalled Latigo’s otherwise promising career, he still dreams of qualifying for Rio 2016 Olympics. But even if the ultimate qualifier to the games coincided with Ramadhan, he will not hesitate fasting. “It is a tough choice, but when I die who will ask me about Olympics?” he reasoned.
Tiger Head Power guard Sudi Ulanga simply says, “You can always sacrifice sports for one month; because Allah is everything.” Not even the onus to impress at his new club would convince him otherwise.

However, former Cranes striker Hassan Mubiru represents a rare species. He wonders, “Why should a footballer not fast? People just look for excuses; I had to fast, while playing, because to me religion comes first. Football was a job, well but those are only worldly pleasures.”
The former Express marksman adds that when one is travelling, that is understandable but at home, one can convince their coach to give them shorter training sessions, to balance between faith and sport.

Then what about the unique case of bodybuilder Mubarak Kizito? Weeks after him being crowned Mr Kampala, he went on to win two prestigious gold medals on his first international appearance—the International Natural Bodybuilding Association contest in Dubai June 13. Dieting before such events is so draining that an athlete must spend at least two weeks of a nutritional rehabilitation regimen to recover lost nutrients. It is the reason he has not started fasting yet.
Sports in Ramadhan is a global issue. As former world champion, Amir Khan observes, during Ramadhan he resorts to lighter training because fasting makes him weak. On several occasions, the British boxer has abandoned offers of big fights which coincided with the fasting season.

When Somali-turned-Briton runner Mo Farah faced a similar puzzle during the London 2012 Summer Olympics, he chose to compete and fast later in the year. He won gold in the 10,000m and the 5,000m.
But England’s all-round cricketer Moen Ali begs to differ. To him, fasting and cricket are like bread and butter. He recently told the British press that he is so used to fasting that it makes him feel stronger and score more runs.

Expert take

Haula Nakiganda a body builder. Some Muslims believe it is healthy to fast even when there are games while others do not think so. Photo by Ismail Kezaala

Medical experts say theoretically a reduction of food intake during Ramadhan could deplete an athlete’s liver and muscle glycogen stores. This is likely to lead to a drop in performance, particularly in sports that require muscle strength.
Dr Ntege Ssengendo, a sports doctor, says when fasting athletes cannot train well in the evening, it is because the body is weak due to the low-blood sugar, low electrolytes and low levels of concentration.

In 2009, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) nutrition working group reviewed the evidence. They concluded that Ramadhan fasting could be problematic for some athletes in some sports, but the likely overall impact of Ramadhan on London 2012 was not clear.
Ronald Maughan, a sports scientist from Britain’s Loughborough University, who chaired the group, agreed that some physical changes are likely. 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 Ramadhan even if they are fasting because they are more intensely focused and because it is a very spiritual time for them,” he told Reuters.
“Their faith gives them strength and Ramadhan is an integral part of that faith.”
Maughan led a team of scientists who reviewed more than 400 research articles on Ramadhan 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,”
But they concluded that in most situations “Ramadhan observance has had only limited adverse consequences for either training or competitive performance”.

Clerical advice
Last year’s World Cup was the first, since 1986, to coincide with Ramadhan. Several Muslim players such as the Toure brothers Kolo and Yaya and France’s Karim Benzema, wondered how to go about it.
With no central Islamic authority in the world, athletes turn to scholars and clerics.
Sheikh Kassim Kiyingi of Bilal Islamic Institute says casual sportsmen cannot be exempted from fasting. He invoked Fiqh us- Sunnah—an expansion of the Sharia (Islamic law), based directly on the Koran and Sunnah, with evolving rulings or interpretations of Islamic jurists.

From its Volume 3, Page 115, we learnt that not every Muslim should fast. Pregnant, breast-feeding and menstruating women are exempted from fasting. Travellers, the ill are also permitted to break their fasts until they are out of those situations.
The elderly are permitted not to fast, as are the chronically ill, and those who have to perform difficult jobs under harsh circumstances and who could not find any other way to support themselves. All of these people are allowed to break their fast because such a practice would place many hardships on them during the year. They are obliged to feed one poor person [miskin] a day (for every day of fasting that they do not perform).

So, Sheikh Kiyingi says professional players can be excused (as workers) if: the conditions are unbearable and the sport is a means of survival, and failure to play could cost him a job.”
However, he warns that such freedoms do not apply to training sessions; if it is not a job or if the player in question can be comfortably replaced. For instance, when a team’s first choice goalkeeper is a Muslim but his deputies are equally good, “then the Muslim should fast and not play.”

Sheikh Mahmood Walukagga advises that in case of conflict between doing the acts of worship enjoined by Allah and working to earn a living, then athletes must strive to strike a balance between the two. Because, “whoever breaks his fast during Ramadan without any of the excuses Allah permitted, then even a perpetual fast…would not make up for that day.”
If, for instance, a boxer must fight as job, with no alternative, he can break the fast on the match-day. And he has to make up for that missed day later—before the next fasting season— in addition to giving to the needy.

Bottom line
If an athlete is fasting, Dr Ntege Ssengendo advises, they should train mid-morning, at least three hours after the pre-dawn meal. Again in the evening, if the schedule allows, three hours after breaking the fast.
A professional boxer such as Amir Khan can choose when to fight. But amateur tournaments are prescheduled and boxers only strive to qualify. Yet, according to the scriptures, still it is the professional who has a window of excuse not to fast when fighting. So what do amateur athletes do?