In Baghdad, Olympic dreams

SUN JOURNAL

Sports: Shut out for years, Iraq's athletes aspire to compete in Athens, but looting and a lack of funding and equipment pose added challenges.

November 28, 2003|By Alan Abrahamson | Alan Abrahamson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Ali Awad Hadeel is a weightlifter with a dream. As he hoists hundreds of pounds of metal over his head - then lets the bar crash onto a wooden platform with a clang - he dreams that maybe, just maybe, he could be part of an Iraqi Olympic team next year.

The hall in eastern Baghdad where he and a handful of others train is dusty, noisy and hot. There are six fluorescent lights on the ceiling. Three work when there is electricity. The ceiling fan is broken. There is no drinking fountain, no showers.

This is hardly the stuff of Olympic glory. But for some of Iraq's leading athletes, dreams might yet trump deprivation.

"It is the dream of every athlete to be part of the Olympic Games," says Hadeel, 27, one of his country's best lifters in the lightweight division.

The International Olympic Committee, which sent a three-man fact-finding delegation to Iraq over the summer, and the U.S.-led coalition have made it a mission to get an Iraqi team to the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece.

The sight of Iraqis parading in the opening ceremony Aug. 13 would provide a potent symbol of renewal and recovery, in contrast to the violence that has torn the country since U.S. and British forces toppled Saddam Hussein in April.

L. Paul Bremer III, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, says sending an Iraqi team to the 2004 Games is a "high priority."

"It's going to be a symbol that Iraqis are free, that it's back, that its sports are no longer the plaything of the elite, that Iraqis are again responsible for their own country," he says.

For the IOC, Iraq presents a test of the Olympic credo that sport can help spread peace and goodwill.

"After 9/11, you had all these athletes coming together from around the world in a spirit of brotherhood," says IOC President Jacques Rogge of Belgium, referring to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. "There were Muslims. There were Christians. There were Jews. They were peacefully together in the Olympic Village. That's a strong signal."

For Iraqis, their country's return to the Olympics would have an added significance.

"Freedom," Hadeel says when asked what it would mean to walk into the Olympic stadium behind the black, green, red and white Iraqi flag. "It's about freedom."

Phebe Marr, a leading U.S. authority on Iraq, says participating in the Games would help repair one of the country's most valuable assets.

"The Iraqi identity is the most important thing we have to develop," says Marr, a retired professor at the National Defense University in Washington and author of The Modern History of Iraq.

"That spirit has been badly eroded over the past 10 years. It's clear that spirit has to be nurtured. That's what the Olympics is all about: participating in something internationally, being part of something bigger than yourself."

The IOC delegation, after meeting with Iraqi athletes, coaches and former sports administrators, developed a list of potential Olympians.

IOC officials have promised to offer training subsidies to as many as two dozen athletes to help them prepare for qualifying competitions.

They also have vowed to revive the Iraqi Olympic Committee, which withered during Hussein's years, so that it can serve as an organizational and fund-raising arm of the country's Olympic effort.

Iraq fielded its first Olympic team in London in 1948. Its only athlete to win an Olympic medal was weightlifter Abdul Wahid Aziz, who took the bronze in the lightweight division in Rome in 1960.

Iraq registered some regional sports success in the early years of Hussein's rule, which began in 1979. It won the men's soccer tournament at the 1982 Asian Games and fielded its biggest Olympic team in Moscow in 1980, with 44 athletes.

In 1984, Hussein's son Odai took over the Iraqi Olympic Committee, "and then we started to suffer," says Amu Baba, a 69-year-old former star of the men's national soccer team.

Odai Hussein ordered athletes beaten or imprisoned if their performances disappointed him. The abuses grew worse after a 1996 assassination attempt on the dictator's son.

At the same time, the United Nations economic sanctions imposed after Iraq occupied neighboring Kuwait in 1990 inflicted pain across a wide swath of society. Food supplies tightened. Water supplies became tainted. Medicines grew scarce. Athletes suffered along with everyone else.

"You might have an athlete with four or five cavities," says Tiras Odisho, a member of the Iraqi delegation to the Moscow Olympics. "What kind of athlete is that? There were basic things we couldn't do."

The quality of coaching especially suffered during Iraq's long period of international isolation.

"We have some coaches, but not many are of a high standard," says Sabah Abdi Abdullah, a University of Florida graduate who was a weightlifting judge at the 1984 Los Angeles Games and is now an elder statesman of Iraqi sports. "Some cannot even read or write."

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