The Comrades Marathon is one of the most prestigious running events of the year, with some 20 000 runners set to take part in the 92nd race, an 87km “up run” from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, on Sunday June 4.
However, this year, most Muslim runners won’t be part of the camaraderie that the marathon is known for, as it’s being held during the holy month of Ramadaan.
Youssef Kanouni, a runner from the Central Athletics Running Club in Newlands, said it was very “unfortunate and disappointing” that Muslims would be missing out on the Comrades this year.
“I feel they are discriminating against us as Muslim runners. This restricts us from running a 90km race without food and water as we will be fasting at that time.”
Earlier this year, Mr Kanouni refused to compete in a race because the national lottery logo appeared on the 2017 Western Province Athletics (WPA) licence. The statement on the licence also indicated that if the runner covered up the logo, they could be disqualified from the race.
Islam forbids all forms of gambling, including buying a lottery a ticket, as well as any endorsement of these activites.
“I refused to run with the Lotto logo on the 2017 WPA licence, not just because of the Lotto logo, as it is against our religion, but also because of the statement on the licence that if you cover up or remove it, you will be disqualified in races.
“This has never been mentioned before. In previous years, the Lotto logo was also printed on the WPA licence. However, runners could cover it up, and there was no issue with that. I felt that they were taking away our freedom of speech and our right to voice our concerns not only as citizens but as runners,” he said.
Mr Kanouni feels the Comrades organisers should have changed the date of the marathon, as many international Muslim runners also participate in the event.
However, Comrades Marathon race director Rowan James, said the Comrades was an “all inclusive” event and the organisers had not intended to exclude Muslim runners.
Organisers had applied to municipal authorities a year in advance to organise road closures and make other arrangements in preparation for the race.
“We certainly value the participation of all Muslim runners, but, unfortunately, the date had been set last year already. While there are many role-players, we do try and accommodate everybody,” Mr James said.
The race usually attracts 40% of its entries from KwaZulu-Natal, 30% from the Gauteng area and 11% from the Western Cape, according to the organisers.
“If we cater for the Muslims, then the Christian, Jewish, Indian or any other religious groups might come back and say what about us. So, we really cannot keep everybody happy at this stage, but the Muslim runners are always welcome to compete in any of the future races,” Mr James said.
Shareef Cader, a Woodstock runner, said the organisers should have done more to consider Muslim athletes.
“The more practical solution would have been to determine how many Muslim runners are planning to participate in this year’s Comrades Marathon and then make a decision from there.
“The Muslim community has groups that can be consulted and a fair view could have been shared as to whether or not hosting this event on such a date, during such a holy month was fair to all participants,” Mr Cader said.
Mr Cader’s last race was the Two Oceans Marathon, used by many runners to prepare for the Comrades.
“At this year’s event, there were plenty of Muslim runners who just accepted that the Two Oceans would be the last major event before the fast, as opposed to previous years, when the runners used the event as preparation and something to motivate them for the Comrades Marathon.”
Mr Kanouni said: “I want the organisers to take us seriously, especially as this is the ultimate human race – The Comrades Marathon. We’re also proudly South African. Our religion does matter in South Africa as we are a rainbow nation.”
Western Province Athletics (WPA) president Lester Cameron said the Comrades issue had not been raised with the WPA . “We find it strange that we were not consulted and given time to look into this matter,” he said.
Given enough time, WPA could have addressed the issue with the organisers, he said.
He said the WPA had tackled the issue of the national lottery logo together with the runners earlier in the year.
“We were approached with this concern, and we immediately looked into the matter. Through discussions, we managed to come to an agreement with all parties and now the Muslim runners can cover the Lotto logo in future events without feeling as if they would be punished for it,” Mr Cameron said.
He said it was a “perfect example” of working towards an “amicable solution” to any problems or concerns lodged with the WPA.