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Zoom calls, donuts and social media challenges: How an Olympic champion is observing Ramadan during the coronavirus pandemic

With millions of people facing movement restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, many Muslims are finding creative ways to break their fast this year.

Posted: May 8, 2020 1:21 PM
Updated: May 8, 2020 1:21 PM

The holy month of Ramadan is usually a time for families and friends to come together, but the coronavirus pandemic has changed everything.

Holy sites and mosques are closed, loved ones are separated from each other. Many traditions and routines have had to be altered because of a virus which has changed the world.

"It's been very difficult," Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad, who is observing Ramadan, tells CNN Sport.

"My family is in New York and New York was hit really hard. Just being away from them, it's been a little bit difficult.

"Both my parents, they're doing well. My sister also lives in New York and she's doing well with her family. It's good to know that they're doing well, but I definitely wish I can kind of take this time to see everyone."

At the 2016 Olympics, Muhammad won gold in the 400 meters hurdles on a rainy night in Rio de Janeiro. Her victory made her one of two American Muslim women to win medals at the Games (fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad won a bronze). Last year, Muhammad broke her own world record in claiming the 400m hurdles world title in Doha.

Over the month of Ramadan -- which this year started on the evening of April 23 -- Muslims abstain from food and water during daylight hours, a practice that is seen as one of the five pillars of Islam. They can eat before sunrise, and break their fast after dusk each day.

With athletics events canceled across the globe, these unusual times have at least given Muhammad, 30, a chance to fast for the whole month, something she would not normally be able to do when competing.

"I'm definitely using this opportunity to fast more than I normally would," she explained. "I always try to fast some days during the season. It's just honestly extremely difficult for me to train as hard as I do and fast.

"I'm never able to do the full 30 days or the full month and this time I kind of made a promise myself to really do it. I can do it now that my training isn't as intense. There's no major championships to get ready for."

At this time of year daylight can last for over 13 hours in Los Angeles, where New Yorker Muhammad lives. So, fasting is no easy feat and, of course, there are cravings to overcome and traditions to keep.

"Growing up, my father always broke his fast with dates and just being home in California, I'm just kind of keeping that tradition," she said.

"I've been craving sweets right now, and that's something I never really crave. I'm not like a big sweet person, but for whatever reason, even last night [April 27] I was craving a cinnamon bun, I was like crossing my fingers that Cinnabon would be open. Of course, it was not. So definitely craving sweets; had some Dunkin Donuts last night."

Dalilah's father, Askia, is an imam and has been ensuring the Muhammad family stay in touch throughout the crisis.

"My father implicated that we need to do this once a week. I don't think we've made it quite once every week, but we do try to make a time to do Zoom calls. Just see everyone's face. I've definitely been FaceTiming a lot."

Potential Olympic "heartbreak"

In March, it was announced that the Tokyo Olympics, originally scheduled to take place this summer, would be postponed to 2021 "to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community."

For Muhammad, plans to defend the title she won four years ago are on hold.

"I understood the decision to hold it in 2021, of course I absolutely agree with it," she said.

"But, for me personally, it was a little bit disappointing. We as athletes, our lives are planned around these four years and we know every fourth year is going to be an Olympic Games and we kind of schedule our training around it and really our lives, our personal lives."

Since the announcement of the initial postponement, Tokyo 2020 Games president Yoshiro Mori has indicated that if the pandemic continues the Olympics could be canceled.

"That would be really heartbreaking," admitted Muhammad. "We sacrifice so much for the Olympic Games and just to represent our country, and we love what we do.

"I'm striving to get a medal at the Olympics and I'd be the reigning champ, Olympic champion, and so it has definitely been disheartening. We'll just have to see how it all plays out."

Minding the dogs

With running tracks closed, Muhammad has been training in the grass fields in Northridge, Los Angeles. After initially training alone, she has now resumed working with her coaches while keeping a social distance from members of the public -- though there are the dogs to navigate around.

Muhammad said: "There are a lot of dogs in the park right now, a lot of people walking their dogs and the dogs are not doing that [social distancing]!

"I'm honestly enjoying just kind of running for fun again. I think we focus so much on the competition aspect and, of course, that's important being a professional athlete, but I'm really just enjoying getting out there and running."

The reigning World Athlete of the Year has also been spending time in lockdown taking part in online challenges.

She helped tee off an indoor relay challenge on her Instagram account with other Nike-sponsored sports stars, including NFL wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., while fellow American hurdler Queen Harrison got her to take part in a Don't Rush-style challenge, which features people seamlessly transforming from everyday clothes to more glamorous attire with the flick of a make-up brush.

"It was just a way for us to kind of express ourselves. Get on some nice clothes, or some different clothes, that we normally wear when we're out training, so it was fun," she said.

Although one challenge she hasn't taken up is dressing up to take out the trash.

"No, I'm not one of those people, not yet. Maybe sometimes to the grocery store, but that's about it," she said.

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