Mazen Aziz, representing Egypt in the 2012 Summer Olympics, has trained for the 10,000-meter, open-water swim for years. It's a grueling race that can take upwards of 1 hour and 45 minutes, depending on the waves, current or water temperature.
But Aziz is Muslim, and with the Olympics falling during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the 22-year-old athlete had to make a choice: be in top physical condition or maintain a primary tenet of his faith.
Muslims are meant to refrain from eating or drinking from sunup to sundown for an entire month. The fast can be a physical and mental challenge for many, but it poses a particular dilemma for Muslims competing in London.
Running On Empty
Aziz ultimately decided to postpone his fast. He says he loses 11 pounds in a typical race, and could lose even more in cold waters like those in London. He usually tucks energy bars into his swimsuit to eat during the swim.
Going without food and water before and during the race, Aziz says, means forfeiting his chances for a medal, at best, and could even cause serious physical harm.
"I don't think anyone can handle that. Anyone," Aziz says. "You may die, because you just don't have anything in your body. Like, empty. So that would be so dangerous."
Aziz says no one, even Egyptian clerics, would fault him for postponing his fast until after the games.
The hotline run by El Azhar, the pre-eminent religious authority in Egypt, provided an official word on the matter. Asked if Egyptian athletes going to the Olympics must fast during Ramadan, the institution's Fatwa Council provided a recorded response, citing a particular school of jurisprudence for the interpretation of Islamic teaching:
"According to Hanafi scholars, it's permissible to break fasting while traveling if the duration will not exceed 15 days. ... If a person was to stay in his country of destination more than the mentioned duration, he must fast as long as he is able and it won't impose difficulty on him."
In other words, Olympic athletes can postpone their fast, just as Muslims who are sick or pregnant can.
'Feed My Soul?'
So athletes face a personal choice — and a spiritual dilemma. Or, as Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, who serves at the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Virginia, explains it, "Do I starve my body to feed my soul? Or in this month, do I starve my soul to feed my body, and my appetite for Olympic gold?"
Abdul-Malik says fasting should bring blessing, not hardship. And that hardship, in this case, would be crushing a young Muslim's chances of winning an Olympic medal.
"Maybe they'll only be able to compete once in their life," Adbul-Malik says. "So they should take the exemption that God, in his mercy, has offered them."
After much soul-searching, runner Mohammed Ahmed, a competitor for Canada in the 10,000-meter race, decided to take the exemption.
"I can't remember the last time I didn't fast," Ahmed says. "I've been fasting since I was 8."
Ahmed consulted with religious scholars, family, coaches and sports doctors before making his choice. His race is scheduled for more than two weeks after Ramadan begins. By then, doctors told him, fasting could cost him 2 percent of his body weight.
Ahmed says he didn't want to give up any edge — especially during that all-important kick at race's end.
"It's gonna be a sprint," Ahmed explains. "Like the world championship last year, it was like a half a second, one-hundredth of a second, that's what determined it. It's crazy."
Those Who Can Fast
Of course, some Muslim competitors will choose to fast — particularly those from more conservative countries, like Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Ronald Maughan, chairman of the nutrition working group for the International Olympic Committee, says it's impossible to know what effect fasting may have on any particular athlete.
"When you first talk to people about Ramadan fasting, and sports performance, the automatic assumption is that every sports performance is going to suffer," Maughan says. "But then if you think about some specific events, it soon becomes obvious that may not be the case."
Maughan says competitors in strength and power events like weightlifting, or in skill competitions such as archery, might not be hampered.
Time of day is also key, Maughan says. Sprinters racing at 10 a.m. wouldn't necessarily feel depleted. But for many others — decathletes who compete in several events all day, long-distance runners and cyclists, swimmers and soccer players who play at night — fasting may take a toll.
"Even very small effects can be the difference between finishing fast and finishing last in an Olympic final," he says.
Ahmed says he sometimes wonders how he would do if he relied on spiritual sustenance rather than food and water — but he knows his limitations.
"I'm not Superman; I'm a human being," he says. "Obviously having your energy at high levels is important."
So, Ahmed says, he'll fast — but not until the day after his race.
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