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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.
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.
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.”
An estimated 150 million Chinese Christians attend such “underground” churches, which are begrudgingly tolerated by the government — which would prefer the faithful attend tightly regulated state-run churches, which prohibit evangelism and bar attendance by children. Just before the 2008 Olympics, “We’re hearing that police and public security forces are attending house church meetings and monitoring them more closely than before,” said Jerry Dykstra, a spokesman for Open Doors, a group that works closely with Chinese believers. “There are a lot of restrictions in place now on who can travel.”
The State Department also noted China’s repression of the Falun Gong, a New Age group the central government claimed was attempting to subvert civil order. “Falun Gong practitioners continued to face arrest, detention, and imprisonment, and there have been credible reports of deaths due to torture and abuse,” the report said.
At the 2012 London Olympics, Sikh athletes will be allowed to carry the ceremonial kirpan or three-inch, sheathed scimitar attached to a cloth belt worn under their clothes. However, Olympic soccer officials have declined to allow Sikh players to wear turbans, citing a longstanding ruling that “players and officials shall not display political, religious, commercial or personal messages or slogans in any language or form on their playing or team kits.” All soccer players must wear a shirt, shorts, socks, shin guards and cleats – but traditionally no head coverings.
That rule — and now a decision to experiment with specially designed hijabs — was devastating for the Iranian women’s soccer team, which apparently has been eliminated after it forfeited — which counts as a lost game — when the team showed up in the banned headcover. FIFA has overlooked the long-sleeved shirts and pants, but not the head covering, which it says is a safety issue. Peripheral vision is crucial in soccer and cannot be obstructed by a scarf, which tends to come loose in competitive play. Also, hitting the ball with the head is a key tactic and any protection on the head gives an unfair advantage.
However, the Iranian women are holding onto a shread of hope after FIFA’s International Football Association Board heard a heart-felt appeal last weekend from FIFA Vice President Ali Bin al-Hussein, and agreeed to allow Muslim players to test over the next four months Dutch-designed headscarves held secure by Velcro.
No announcement has been made on whether their forfeited match with Jordan can be rescheduled under Olympic rules.
Prince Ali’s campaign to lift the ban has received widespread support from the United Nations, the Asian Football Confederation, the International Federation of Professional Footballers and members of FIFA’s own executive committee.
“I am deeply grateful that the proposal to allow women to wear the headscarf was unanimously endorsed by all members of IFAB,” said Prince Ali after the new verdict. “I welcome their decision for an accelerated process to further test the current design and I’m confident that once the final ratification at the special meeting of IFAB takes place, we will see many delighted and happy players returning to the field and playing the game they love.”
Why are daggers OK, but not scarves? Safety, says FIFA. The four-month experiment will test whether Dutch-designed hijabs will stay in place. FIFA allows the Sikh kirpans since they are concealed under the uniform and pose no safety issues – the same allowance already made for religious necklaces and rosaries if they are concealed underneath uniforms.
London police will allow the Sikh daggers through security as long as they are less than three inches long and carried by Sikhs observing the traditional five-point requirement of unshorn hair and beard, a ritual comb, a steel bracelet, special garments and the kirpan.
This is hardly the first religious dilemma facing the Olympics. Annually food-preparers in the Olympic Village face a daunting task of providing meals. For example, Koreans, Chinese and Japanese athletes prefer different kinds of rice and many Asian athletes expect a variety of noodles for breakfast. Hindus can’t eat beef, a number of faiths can’t eat pork, Jews can only eat food from kosher kitchens and Muslims require hallal-prepared food.
The very first games in 700 B.C., the Olympics had religious overtones and the strictest of regulations regarding head coverings – or any other covering. Athletes competed nude to ensure that no special gear gave anybody an advantage. Events were sandwiched between processions, sacrifices, altar rituals and banquets honoring the Greek gods. Unmarried girls could watch the games, but married women could not. Both were allowed to participate in an alternative sport festival that honored the goddess Hera, a consort of Zeus. The female athletes wore a short, knee-length tunic.
After 1,000 years of popularity, the Roman Emperor Theodosius banned all such festivals around 391 A.D. Though some athletic competitions continued to exist, it would be 1,500 years before the concept of the Olympics as a peaceful competition among all nations was resurrected.
In 1894, French nobleman Baron Pierre de Coubertin promoted the reborn Olympics as “a new civil religion,” replete with symbols, traditions, rites and ceremonies. Winners received a silver medal, a certificate and a “crown of olive branches,” while those finishing second earned a copper medal and “a crown of laurel,” both reminiscent of the ancient games. De Coubertin drew on his Catholic education for the official Olympic motto – Faster, Higher, Stronger – first coined by Dominican Father Henri Didon in an 1891 speech to the members of a sports association.
This year, with the diversity of religious sensitivities in mind, officials have changed the angle of the commodes in some Olympic restrooms. According to the London Telegraph newspaper, Islamic law prohibits Muslims from facing Mecca – the direction of prayer – when they use the facilities. Last year, the British government changed the angle of toilets in London’s Brixton Prison after Muslim inmates complained of having to sit sideways in order to comply with religious law.
British Olympic officials said special foot-washing facilities are also being constructed next to Muslim prayer rooms. But there’s nothing they can do about that biggest religious conflict of all – Ramadan.
“A Muslim might feel it would have been nice to avoid this month but life doesn’t stop for Muslims during Ramadan even though they are fasting,” said Mogra. “The best thing for a Muslim is to continue his or her life as normal. This is the real test.”
Togay Bayalti, president of the National Olympic Committee of Turkey, said the dates will be difficult for Muslim athletes, but noted they “don’t have to observe Ramadan if they are doing sport and traveling. But they will have to decide whether it is important to them. It would be nice for the friendship of the games if the organizers had chosen a different date.”