05/08/2012 14:47 BST | Updated 05/10/2012 06:12 BST

New Civil Religion Versus the Old: Olympics and Ramadan

Olympics, a mega scale sporting event that unites the spirit to compete and push the boundaries of human endeavour witnesses much coveted participation from all nations in the world. The resurrector of modern Olympics, French Nobleman Baron Pierre de Coubertin promoted the sporting event as "a new civil religion." While that is expectedly the spirit that gets the sporting world together every four years, and the new civil religion is celebrated universally, there have been conflicts that the athletes face while serving their nations and living by their own religious beliefs.

This would not be a point of discussion if the current Olympics being held at London were not happening during the month of Ramadan, the holiest month for Muslims. What should be the view of the "new civil religion" on the religious constraints that athletes face at certain times of year? Should there be a conscious move to accommodate and if yes then should the Olympics committee have to deal with similar constraints for other religions as well? Would that be possible or even important?

Many aspects of religion as understood by faith groups are now being considered by the Olympics Committee, such as Sikhs being allowed to wear their 3 inch dagger, or other athletes wearing whatever their religious symbols are, as long as they are not visible, so much so that the headgears for women coming from Islamic societies are now considered permissible as long as they meet the safety parameters. However, the month of Ramadan, during which the practising Muslims observe fast from dawn to dusk and are not even permitted to have a drop of water for the whole day, the athletic performance at Olympics becomes questionable. Even if the athletes themselves are able to handle such dilemmas, the rest of the team may not feel assured with the decision of the athlete. The demand of very optimal diet for the optimum performance is not in appropriate for an athlete to consider. How then athletes who practise hard to out-perform their peers by incremental fractions can compete given the dietary hardships. So the natural question then is should the organizing committee be sensitive to such questions or the guiding authorities for religion should be in a position to help athletes?

There have been conflicts in the past not only with Muslims, but with Jews and Christians. One of these, as portrayed beautifully in motion picture "Chariots of fire" depicts the conflict that a top ranking athlete handles in favour of his religious convictions but ends up coming out victorious.

How would a 3500 strong Muslim athletic community participating in London Olympics be able to perform at par with other people? From the point of competing athletes it is a tough call to take. But many Muslim thought leaders have been communicating that Islam permits exempting from the norms of religious beliefs under exceptional circumstances. While most agree with that, interpretation only varies in the way Olympics are treated. Is this an exceptional circumstance, well some interpret it as equivalent to travelling which is exempted. Some think that this is anything but an exceptional circumstance. While some say it is entirely between a person and the God, if they are able to avoid or confront the dilemma one way or the other, it is a private matter left to them. While some of the religious leaders have also issued Fatwas for exempting soccer team for keeping fasts, say in Morocco.

About 150 clerics are employed by the London organizing committee to help athletes. It is also important to note that an event as grand as Olympics requires lot of planning from the viewpoint of the host country. British as a matter of fact, wanted to have Olympics in Summer when children have summer holidays in schools and also weather is much nicer than in winters. So, while there may be many who question the timing of the games, many others think such mega scale event cannot take into account religious timings for many communities while planning for the games. Moscow Olympics in 1980 were also during the month of Ramadan. However this time the number of Muslim athletes is nearly a quarter of the total number of athletes which is bringing this issue to the forefront.

It is important to note however, that despite the unrest in Syria, the Syrian team is participating in Olympics, even if the number of athletes is only eight. Many however are not participating under the banner of the ruling political party. Arguably, when conflict does not stop in the month of Ramadan, why should sports not happen? However, this is one argument versus the other of that of having solidarity for a large chunk of participants.

While it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss when the Muslim nations started participating in Olympics in the history, it is almost celebratory to see that this time around some women teams are participating as a first from some nations in history of Olympics. No one should forget that the London Organizers still have put in place lot of assistance to manage what is important for people and their faith as compared to Beijing Olympics where a religious crackdown happened before the Olympics.

While politics and religion have always been a part of any big event that the whole world participates in, it is perhaps only getting better by the day.