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Reconciling Faith and the Field

Athletes Observe Ramadan Fasts Despite Fatigue

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2004; Page C01

As Aimad Khelalfa, a senior for the Wakefield High School cross-country team, prepared for the district championships three weeks ago, he knew he had a good chance of qualifying for regionals. His coach had said so, and he felt it in his own muscles.

So Aimad decided to do something radical: He decided to eat on the day of the meet.


Aimad Khelalfa, kneeling, prays with Muhammed Fahad Khan, before breaking his fast after a cross-country event. (Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

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It was radical because Aimad, 18, is Muslim, and the holy month of Ramadan had just begun. Each year since he was 11, he has joined millions of Muslims worldwide who take no food or drink from sunrise to sundown. This weekend, they began celebrating the end of the month with three days of feasting.

For many American teenagers, joining a sports team is an integral part of high school, and for new immigrants it can be a good way to find friends and fit in. But athletes who emigrate from predominantly Muslim countries, where sports and other energy-sapping activities tend to be postponed during Ramadan, find that the Western clock does not stop for Islam.

Aimad, whose family moved to Arlington from Algeria four years ago, usually breaks his daily fast at home, starting with dates and moving on to couscous, meat, vegetables and water. Especially water.

"You really get thirsty" during long training runs, he said.

At Burke Lake Park in Fairfax, the best runners from eight high schools would race a three-mile course at 3:15 p.m. on this late October day, long after the pre-sunrise meal had been digested, and Aimad didn't want to falter.

"Only the best four schools out of eight are going to go to regionals," he said, adding that there are circumstances under which one can break the fast and make it up after Ramadan ends. "When you're traveling a long distance, if you're a pregnant woman, if you're sick -- if you have some kind of excuse -- you can break your fast."

Aimad planned to consult an imam about his plan, then try to talk his 16-year-old brother, Mohamed -- known as "Mo," and also on the team -- into doing the same.

"My brother is a little more strict," he explained. "But I think if he breaks fast, he'll do better, and it's better for the team."

Muslims are not alone in having to find a compromise between religion and sport. Sandy Koufax, one of baseball's pitching greats, skipped a 1965 World Series game because it fell on Yom Kippur, the Jewish fasting day. The movie "Chariots of Fire" tells the story of Eric Liddell, a Christian from Scotland who refused to run a qualifying heat in the 1924 Olympics because it fell on a Sunday.

But in recent years, as more American and immigrant Muslims have emerged in professional, college and high school athletics, they have had to find ways to satisfy the demands of the sport without ignoring the demands of the spirit.

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said coaches and teammates have become more sympathetic as they have become more familiar with Ramadan. "With the tremendous flow of information about Islam, many people have picked up at least the basics," he said.

But Meryem Noucair, 15, a sophomore on the Wakefield cross-country team, still finds herself explaining. "People ask if we're doing it because we're being punished," said the native of Morocco. "I tell them no, it's a good thing."


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