Midway through Leicester City’s 2-1 win over Crystal Palace last month, Palace ‘keeper Vicente Guaita paused before taking a kick-out to enable Leicester defender Wesley Fofana take a sip of water pitchside.
The break was prearranged and agreed upon by both team captains beforehand, and was intended to allow Fofana, a practising Muslim, to break his Ramadan fast at a point in the game after sunset. Fofana used the brief interval to sip some water and quickly eat a banana before returning to the field of play. It would have been his first food or drink in at least 14 hours. The act of sportsmanship, though an entirely obvious one (Muslim athletes fasting and competing during Ramadan is hardly a novel concept), highlighted a growing awareness of the Islamic faith amongst sports teams, their supporters and the media.
Last Thursday, Muslims the world over celebrated Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan. It followed a month of daily fasting for many of the two billion Muslims, a ritual that is marked by an early meal before sunrise, and another after sunset. Fasting is a personal choice for Muslims, and one of the “Five Pillars of Islam”, a set of worshipping guidelines outlined in the Quran to which all observant Muslims are expected to adhere. Not everybody fasts during Ramadan, with many athletes choosing to observe a period of fasting during their off season, so as not to compromise their faith or sporting performance. Others, like Fofana and Manchester United’s Paul Pogba, do so, and seem to excel.
The same week as Fofana ran to the sideline to break his fast, basketballer Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets announced he had recently converted to Islam and was observing Ramadan with his Muslim brothers and sisters.
While the NBA counts many Muslim players amongst their ranks both past and present (Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon to name just two), few have the profile or reach of Irving. He is a star whose talent and achievements has rendered obsolete the invisible contract between player and league that often filters what should and should not be publicly discussed. Irving has long outgrown that notion of censorship, and in doing so, is normalising a conversation that for too long has proven difficult for players, coaches, and the media.
Jamad Fiin, a young black Muslim shooting guard for Boston’s Emmanuel College women’s basketball team who wears a hijab on and off the court, said of Irving’s recent conversion;
“As a Black Muslim ballplayer myself, who grew up watching Irving play, I love how he’s bringing positive awareness to the religion because he’s such a big figure. It makes me really proud, and inspires me to not shy from who I am — a Muslim and a black woman ballplayer, who shouldn’t have to choose between the things that I am and the things that I love.”
Some argue that there is another, more spiritual benefit to a period of abstinence that can even elevate performance. That, by retraining our bodies and minds to be less reliant on food and water, we can achieve a more conscious state, and experience emotions and sensations on a more profound level, allowing those who fast to be more present, and act less on impulse. This is likely more easily achieved by professional athletes who can tailor their daily lives to optimising performance in both their professional and personal lives. Kyrie Irving’s performances during his period of Ramadan were as good as he’s had in an already brilliant season for him.
As the Muslim population in Ireland grows, so too does the numbers of young Muslim kids getting involved in all sports, especially Gaelic Games. Last year’s Eid celebration saw over 200 Muslims roll out their prayer mats on the Croke Park pitch, a positive symbol of tolerance and integration for the country. But, with inclusivity comes a greater need for understanding of the demands of Ramadan on our young Muslim athletes, who, unlike the stars of the NBA and Premiership, have a lot more to combine than just faith and sport.
Shairoze Akram won an All-Ireland U21 medal playing wing-back for Mayo in 2016. A native of Pakistan, his family moved to Ballaghaderreen when he was four. “I practice Islam, but not as much as I used to,” admits Akram, but, having observed Ramadan regularly as a young man, he’s well positioned to speak of the challenges it can pose for a young athlete who may be trying to balance a myriad of things in their lives, including studies, sports, and growing up.
“The thirst hits far more than the hunger,” Akram says. “I could handle the not-eating, but going into a game or training — especially in the evening time — having not taken a drop of water all day was brutal! But, your body definitely adapts.” Amongst his peers, Akram was very much in the minority observing Ramadan in the broader community of Ballagh, and he openly reflects that his reluctance to discuss it with teammates and coaches made the entire experience more difficult.
“As a teenager especially, you don’t want to draw attention to yourself, so, the tendency was to just get on with it. You didn’t want to sound like you were making excuses to opt out, or make a coach feel he couldn’t rely on you or pick you during Ramadan”.
Akram feels the increased exposure of high-profile athlete’s Ramadan stories, particularly on social media, will benefit both young Muslim athletes and their non-Muslim coaches. “I had a chat just today with a coach in the community about this very issue. We were just discussing how, if he had been more aware of what one of his young players was going through while fasting, he’d have modified the training to help.”
Akram agrees that the recent examples of both Fofana and Irving helps in normalising the subject for both the young player and particularly the coach, who often can be reluctant to address fasting for fear of being insensitive.
Increased exposure and awareness on media platforms, he says, will encourage participation and reduce the need for athletes to choose between their sport and their faith.
Finally, social media proving itself a force for good.