Olympics 2012: Religion and Law Round-up

To mark the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, Law and Religion UK is reviewing some of the events and issues that have arisen during the last two weeks, which started with three minutes of bell ringing throughout the country.  An event conceived by performance artist Martin Creed, it was uncertain what support it might receive, but on 27th August 2.9 million participants took part in Work 1197 All the Bells which became the top trend on Twitter in the UK throughout the morning.  The event was broadcast live by the BBC on television, radio and on-line to an estimated audience of over 12 million.

Neither this nor the 4-hour peals rung at St Paul’s and Southwark Cathedrals and Westminster Abbey appears to have triggered any of the legislation associated with this aspect of noise nuisance, although there were health and safety issues when a bystander narrowly avoided injury following the bell malfunction of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt.  However, it was the 27 ton bell rung to start the games at 9pm by Tour de France winner, Bradley Wiggins that was a concern for former Coventry City goalkeeper and conspiracy theorist, David Icke.  He claimed that ‘[t]he enormous Olympic bell, the biggest harmonically-tuned bell in the world made specially for the opening ceremony, is designed to dictate satanic frequency right at the start’.

Nevertheless, serious religious issues did arise.  Coinciding with the holy month of Ramadan, the Olympics posed important choices for the 3,000 or so Muslim competitors on how they meet the requirement of dawn to sunset fasting of food and water.  Although the timing of Ramadan is predictable, since the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar calendar year Ramadan migrates throughout the seasons.  Consequently, Muslim athletes are accustomed to addressing their training and competition schedules to accommodate its requirements.  This is the first Games to have coincided with Ramadan since those in Moscow in 1980.

Some athletes such as Team GB discus thrower Abdul Buhari made the decision to fast later in the year, whilst most of the Egyptian athletes are fasting only on training days.  Others arranged to undertake charitable acts in lieu of fasting, but for those who observed the fast could order ‘breaking-fast packs’ filled with dates, traditionally eaten when breaking a fast, as well as water and energy bars.  At the 24-hour canteen on the Olympic Village, pre-fast meals to be consumed just before sunrise were available.

A study undertaken by scientists from Loughborough University concluded: ‘fasting of short duration or intermittent nature has little or no effect on the health or performance of most athletes … Ramadan observance has only limited adverse consequences for either training or competitive performance.’  In practice, however, athletes are making the decision on the basis of advice from their trainers and religious advisers.

The extent to which an athlete’s faith is instrumental in their success has been debated, and whilst some have suggested that this is merely a placebo effect, others believe that the faith is pivotal to their performance.  This is not the forum within which to enter such a debate, other than to note the comment made by Oakley that those athletes who believe that the result is in God’s hands are adopting a determinist rather than an an existentialist view of the world.

A number of international sports bodies relaxed their rules relating to clothing so that more Muslim women might compete, and this enabled the participation of women from Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.  For the first time, women will compete in all 26 Olympic sports, although they will take part in 30 fewer events and as such be eligible for 132 medals rather than the 162 awarded to men.

The UK has the largest Sikh population outside India and the wearing of the ceremonial short sword, the kirpan, is fundamental to Amritdhari Sikhs who make up about 10% of the Sikh population.  In view of the tight security measures controlling access to the Games, there were concerns as to whether competitors and spectators would be permitted entry if wearing the kirpan.  Guidance on the wearing of the kirpan has been provided by the Sikh Community and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, (EHRC), and  section 139(5) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 provides a defence to the offence of having article with blade or point in public place, providing that it is: for use at work; for religious reasons; or as part of any national costume.  Furthermore EHRC Guidance states that Sikhs are both an ethnic and a religious group so are protected from racial as well as religious discrimination, after the Lords decision in Mandla v Dowell-Lee.  However, in the more recent Dhinsa v Serco & Anor [2011] ET/1315002/09, the Employment Tribunal held that Amritdhari Sikhs are not a distinct racial group, as less than 10% of all Sikhs are required to carry one, although the wearing of the kirpan was considered as a distinct religious belief.

Nevertheless, prior to the start of the Games, Sikhs were assured by Lord Coe:

‘At Games-time, small symbolic ceremonial daggers (an Article of Faith with a maximum blade length of 3 inches) carried for religious reasons will be allowed.’

For the most part, this worked without incident although one family was denied entry to Olympic football game in Coventry.

An early sponsorship row, concerning a possible ban on spectators wearing the brands of rivals to companies who had agreed substantial sponsorship deals, seems to have been oblivious to the fact that the Nike is traditionally represented on the front face of all Olympic medals, albeit in the form of the Greek Goddess of Victory stepping out the Panathinaiko Stadium and without the ‘Swoosh’ logo or a speech bubble saying ‘Just Do It’.

High profile sponsorship works both ways, and after the men’s 100m final on Sunday 5th August, War on Want projected a giant video message in protest to the alleged exploitation of sportswear workers around the world.  It is uncertain what impact this had on the visitors, who through legislative changes to the UK trading laws were able to continue shopping on Sundays during the Olympic period.

Faith groups have used the Olympics as an opportunity for outreach and hospitality, such as the Christian churches’ More than Gold initiative.  One aspect of this is the provision of Games Pastors, modelled on the successful inter-denominational Street Pastors scheme that has been operating in the UK for since 2003.  Feedback to date has suggested that that the Games Pastors programme is likely to be adopted in future sporting events such as the Commonwealth Games in 2014 and Rio 2016.

As Team GB and others assess their performance in the medal tables, alternative methods of comparison have been produced, such as those reported here, and here, in which account is taken of the competing teams’ size, country GDP and other factors.  In a BBC report Professor David Forrest, a sports economist at the University of Salford, is quoted as saying that there is virtually no chance that anyone from a poor country can win a medal in four sports – equestrian, sailing, cycling and swimming, citing the example of Ethiopia which has one swimming pool for every six million people.  Wrestling, judo, weightlifting and gymnastics, he says, tend to be the best sports for developing nations.

Of the total number of Olympic medals ever awarded, 15% have been won by the United States and 60% by Europe, a consequence of their extreme wealth and high populations, according to Stefan Szymanski, Professor of Sports Management at the University of Michigan.  He attributes much of Team GB’s success to Lottery funding in the 90s and its use to build up elite teams.

One thought on “Olympics 2012: Religion and Law Round-up

  1. Interesting post, however, there is perhaps a need to consider some of the ethical/legal dilemmas raised by the Olympics, such is the position of athletes who train at high altitude to raise their red blood cell count. Its legal but is it ethical. Taking EPO to do some thing is illegal. Where is the moral distinction? There are many other examples – the legal position of genetic manipulation by the time of the Rio games.

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