How Muslim Athletes Compete During Ramadan

Ramadan brings a challenge to Muslim athletes across all sports, and remarkably, many players have some of their most memorable performances while fasting from sunrise to sunset.

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During the month of Ramadan, Muslims around the world fast from sunrise to sunset. This fasting is hard enough on its own, but for Muslim athletes, professional and otherwise, it is a major performance hurdle. They have to deal with the extreme physical demands that come with their respective sports daily, but on top of that, they are not allowed to eat or drink for the majority of the day. However, throughout history, Muslim athletes have risen to this challenge and succeeded with flying colors, showcasing their determination and perseverance to the world.

During Ramadan, athletes have to wake up before sunrise to begin their fast. Since their sleep gets interrupted, waking up at such an odd hour adds another dimension of struggle. Instead of getting the recommended eight to nine hours of sleep, athletes may instead be getting six to seven. Though this difference may seem insignificant at first glance, these small details can have a noticeable effect on performance. Some athletes choose to rinse their mouths without swallowing the water, but this action isn’t enough to keep them properly hydrated throughout the day. Although it typically does help with quenching thirst, it still doesn’t nourish the players enough for optimal performance. When it comes to breaking the fast (called iftar), athletes may not even get the chance to have a proper meal. If they have a game a few hours after iftar, eating too much would make them feel too heavy. If they have a game during sunset, they may have to break their fast after the game or during a break. Sometimes, opponents actually halt play to give the player an opportunity to break his or her fast. One example was a soccer game between Leicester City and Crystal Palace on April 26, 2021. The Crystal Palace team and the referee stopped play for a moment so that Muslim player Wesley Fofana could get a quick sip of water and a small nibble on a snack. Fofana later thanked the sportsmanship shown by Crystal Palace on Twitter, saying, “That’s what makes football wonderful.”

The NBA was dominated by all-time great players including Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Patrick Ewing in the 1990s. Hakeem “The Dream”' Olajuwon dared to face these legends all while fasting. Olajuwon led his Rockets past Barkley and his Suns, scoring 28 points and getting 11 rebounds during Ramadan in February 1995. Later in the month, Olajuwon would shine again for the Rockets, racking up 27 points and nine rebounds against Ewing’s Knicks. Olajuwon would eventually go on to win NBA Player of the Month for February 1995, which was a remarkable achievement for a player who was already at a major physical disadvantage. He would go on to have many more memorable performances in his career during Ramadan, including one against Jordan and the champion Chicago Bulls. Olajuwon led the Rockets to a blowout 102-86 win over Jordan’s squad, with the Dream scoring 32 points and racking up 16 rebounds, outshining Jordan’s 26 points and 14 rebounds. Olajuwon showed the world that despite being without food or water for the majority of the day, his determination and work ethic were enough to bring about some of the most impressive performances of his career.

More recently, in 2018, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané, two of the biggest Muslim soccer stars in the world, tore up teams across the world with Liverpool FC during the month of Ramadan. Ramadan coincided with the UEFA Champions League Final that year, and Salah and Mané both fasted during the game. They faced Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid, who were on the verge of their third consecutive Champions League trophy. Though Liverpool did not win this time around, Salah and Mané played on, with Mané going on to score a goal for the Reds. The next year, though, Liverpool found themselves in another Champions League Final, facing off against Tottenham Hotspurs. The Champions League Final once again coincided with Ramadan, and despite losing the year before, Mané and Salah chose to fast again. This time, they were able to beat Tottenham and got the trophy they deserved. Their decision to fast during the two biggest games of their lives was inspiring, especially considering that they lost the previous year.

There is a lesson to be learned from the success of all these Muslim athletes during Ramadan. No matter how hard a challenge may seem, perseverance and determination can overcome that challenge. Despite fasting, Olajuwon, Salah, Mané, and countless others showed the world what Muslim athletes were made of. Their resilience is remarkable, and it is something that we should all, Muslim or not, strive to embody.