The estimated 3,500 Muslim athletes from all over the world competing in London this summer will be physically and spiritually challenged as the holy fasting month of Ramadan coincides with the Olympic events they are participating in.
A lot of attention has recently been given to Sarah Attar, 17, a California-raised and trained track competitor at Pepperdine, who will represent Saudi Arabia in the 800-meter race, according to an article by the Wall Street Journal.
But Olympics aside, Muslim athletes in all sports have had to decide whether to fast while playing, or make up the fasts afterward.
Late last month, two Muslim National Football League players visited the Muslim Community Association in Santa Clara, as part of their 30 Mosques in 30 days tour, to talk to youth about being a practicing Muslim and playing in the NFL and the challenges of playing professional football..
The tour was kicked off on the first day of Ramadan--which is the holy fasting month for Muslims, when they abstain from eating, drinking, and bad habits from sunrise to sunset-and will continue for the rest of the month.
According to Husain Abdullah, there was never any question if he and his brother, Hamza Abdullah, would fast while playing football, even though there were some health concerns for him and his brother playing in the heat, without having had any water all day.
Hamza and Husain Abdullah both played college ball for Washington State University. Hamza was recruited by the NFL in college and Husain earned a spot afterwards. They have been playing as free agents in the NFL respectively for seven and four years.
“We had a really good start fasting and playing,” Husain said. “We saw Hakeem Olajuwon push through …and knew we could bear through it as well.”
However, this was not always easy to maintain, and the thing that Husain kept telling himself was a verse from the Quran, Chapter 2:286, that translates to “On no soul does God place a burden greater than it can bear.” He added that when he found himself in difficult situation when he would have liked to give up, he reminded himself of this verse.
He recalls a practice last year during Ramadan when it was so hot that five of his teammates had to be rushed to the medical tent to be hydrated. “I was struggling internally to keep going,” Husain said. Then one of his teammates told him how much he respected Husain for fasting while practicing and it invigorated him to keep practicing hard. “My teammates were like he is flying around, this guy hasn't eaten or drank water and he has all this energy,” he added.
Were their coaches any easier on them because they were fasting?
“No,” Hamza Abdullah quipped, before adding with a smile, that the coaches did not treat them any differently than the other players, nor did the brothers want to receive “special treatment.”
Husain said hydration and having a good sleep cycle were important components for being able to play football at a professional level while fasting. They are now used to playing on an empty stomach, only to refuel past sundown with large glasses of water and ample meals in the evening. They make sure to wake before dawn, to gulp down more water and eat a hearty breakfast to sustain them through grueling practices.
Because there are only a few Muslims in the NFL, most coaches are not sure how to handle Ramadan, and accommodate prayer breaks, Hamza Abdullah said. That’s why they have to coordinate their prayers--Muslims pray five times a day—around practices and games, Hamza Abdullah added.
That is something that San Jose resident Naji Karaman,22 - and recently recruited defender for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo men's soccer team - has been practicing since he started playing soccer 18 years ago.
He will be heading off to training camp this week, and will be fasting through intense conditioning. He calls being able to train while fasting, a mental barrier that transcends the physical act of not eating or drinking.
The strength to endure come from within and carriers over onto other fields, he added.
"It's just something that you have to push through, and to be honest I play better when I am fasting," Karaman said. "You don't feel heavy because you haven't eaten, you are light on your feet and more relaxed."
He said that playing in intense conditions without eating or drinking is something one builds up tolerance for, until it becomes easier. It helps that his coaches, allow him to take breaks occasionally when he is pushed to the breaking point, and are accommodating.
Karaman will be majoring in Economics at Cal Poly, although he hopes to play soccer professionally when he graduates.
For the Abdullah brothers, while they love the sport, they've decided to take the next season off because they want to perform the Hajj to Mecca, and then hope to return to play the tail-end of the football season.