This year at the London Olympics, Sikh athletes will be allowed to carry daggers – and some Muslim competitors may be exempted from their annual Ramadan fast. But a decision to experiment with the safety of  hijab headcoverings for Muslim women soccer players may have come too late for Iran’s national women’s team.

Sikh athletes will be allowed to carry a "kirpan" dagger

London’s 2012 Olympics will take place during Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month. From sunrise to sunset, devout Muslims bar anything from passing their lips, even water. That could put Islamic athletes at an extreme disadvantage, particularly in the summer’s heat.

And the reversed decision on hijabs may have come too late for the Iranian national women’s squad, which forfeited a key qualifying match last week after the entire team showed up in the banned head-coverings.

The International Olympic Committee leaves certain decisions up to the international bodies governing each sport — as in the case with the hijab ruling, which the IOC left up to FIFA, the Swiss-based Fédération Internationale de Football Association, which turned to its traditional rulemakers, the International Football Association Board.

On the other hand, it was the IOC itself that has required the Olympic summer games take place any time between July 15 and August 31. As a result, the London Olympics will run from July 27 to August 12. Annually, Ramadan shifts forward by 11 days, putting it at July 21 to August 20, 2012, right in the middle of the Olympics.

As many as 3,000 Muslim athletes are expected to attend; countries with predominantly Muslim populations sent about a fourth of

the 11,099 competitors taking part in the 2004 Athens games.

Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission, has demanded the event be rescheduled: “They would not have organized this at Christmas. It is equally stupid to organize it at Ramadan.”

However, Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, an imam on the Muslim Council of Great Britain, is not so harsh. “I’m sure the athletes will seek advice from their scholars,” he said, noting that under some circumstances, a devout Muslim can postpone or even be excused from his observance of the fast.

British officials have known about the conflict for more than a decade, but the IOC cited tradition, precedent and practicality. London is better equipped to hold a summer event since demands of public transportation are lighter during the vacation months. Also, attendance is likely to be better if the Olympics take place while kids are on their summer school break.

Also, there’s the problem that the Olympics cannot be scheduled around every possible religious conflict. ”The Games bring together virtually every religion and creed,” said IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies. “How to deal with religious clashes is up to the athletes.”

Indeed, in the classic movie Chariots of Fire, Scottish runner Eric Liddell skipped a key race and certain gold medal in the 1924 Olympics because he refused to run on Sunday.

A scene from "Chariots of Fire"

Just days ago, Houston’s Jewish private school, Beren Academy, came within hours of forfeiting a shot at the state high school basketball championship since a key play-off game was for 9 p.m. on a Friday – after sundown and well into the Jewish Sabbath. Only at the last moment and under threat of lawsuit, was the game rescheduled.

Olympic officials say they are trying their best to accommodate cultural and religious needs. Organizers have recruited 193 chaplains, representing nine faiths, to assist some 17,000 athletes and officials expected to participate in the games. The International Olympic Committee requested facilities for five faiths – Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists – but London 2012 organizers are providing chapels for Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains and Baha’is as well.

London’s efforts to accommodate people of faith are in sharp contrast to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which were proceeded by a sharp crackdown on Chinese people of faith. The U.S. State Department

reported just before the Olympics that China had “expelled over one hundred foreign missionaries” as part of “a government-initiated campaign to tighten control on Christian house churches prior to the 2008 Olympics.”

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