Iraqis carry a flag of hope to Athens

August 10, 2004|By Laura Vecsey

ATHENS, Greece - At an outside plaza at the Olympic Village yesterday, a contingent of American athletes stood and stared and placed their hands over their hearts.

It's a ritual afforded every Olympic team as its athletes check into their home for the next two weeks: They gather to watch their flag be raised.

So there it was, the Stars and Stripes, flapping in a stiff breeze, only one of many flags flying over Athens.

This is how the Olympics really start, with athletes sharing space, sharing the stage, stories and their colors. It starts with a crazy hope: one world, under God, indivisible?

It was a daring proposition to ponder yesterday, not to mention naive, perhaps dangerously so. Even so, the question came to mind yesterday as I stood inside the Olympic Village - a no-politics zone by design, by decree, by necessity, thank God.

Flags from around the world flapped in a stiff breeze: red stripes, green stars, yellow rectangles, blue lines. The symbols and colors rippled together and broke the monochromatic off-white scheme of Athens - all stone-covered hills and cement buildings and, yes, those ancient ruins all shrouded in haze.

One world, under God, indivisible?

Whatever kind of planet this is now, after Sept. 11 and after Afghanistan and in the middle of Iraq, it takes inexhaustible hope for anyone to even consider such a declaration, even with the start of the Olympic Games just days away.

It's more like: one world, under God, divided. Or, at least, one world in conflict, in crisis, in pain.

The nations of this world pledge allegiance to our many flags, made up of so many colors, symbols, patterns, meaning. Or is it all the same thing, in the end, for all the teams from all the countries?

"We live in hope, and our hope is to live in peace," said Tiras Odisho Anwaya, director general of the National Olympic Committee of Iraq.

Yes, Iraq.

Whatever kind of world this is, the Iraqis have rejoined the Olympic family for the first time since 1988 - an almost unthinkable act of rebirth after Saddam Hussein and the invasion by mostly U.S. troops.

The Iraqis arrived in Greece yesterday, in part thanks to the military flights provided by the Australian Air Force, which lifted them from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan.

Military jets to take a team of athletes from a chaotic, tumultuous country on a mission for sport and for peace.

He would not start the Iraqi team news conference until all the journalists and cameras had taken note of Iraq's new National Olympic Committee logo - and Iraq's flag.

"It's the same, old flag. We're happy it didn't change," Anwaya said about the white flag with a black and red stripe and three green stars and black writing.

"We are very sentimental about our flag. The only thing that changed is the new calligraphy. The old script was Saddam Hussein's. We took off his calligraphy, but left the words: Allahu Akbar - God is Great," he said.

When the Americans win their gold medals, there won't be the same showboat flag-draping or patriotic preening that took place four years ago in Sydney. The Americans are under orders.

The Iraqis?

The Iraqis have won a single Olympic medal - ever. A bronze back in 1960. That was more than a lifetime ago. It was a million lifetimes ago. It was a million tortures, a million deaths, a million agonies ago.

Now the Iraqis are back. The flag they carry is a flag from the ashes, from the graves and the memories. It is also the flag of hope and restoration.

"A lot of good things are happening in Iraq, but you only see bodies blown apart and bombs," Anwaya said. "These things are happening, but by outsiders. Schools are being built. A lot of positive things are taking place. We are going about our work."

Now their work is to be here, to compete, to make it known:

"The big thing is that I will fight very hard for my country," Iraqi boxer Najah Ali said with a broad smile.

"We want to win medals, yes, but the big thing is to represent freedom and normal life in Iraq. We want to prove something. We want to prove to the world that Iraq is here, Iraq is back."

And its flag - the new old flag that carries not Saddam's handwriting but the calligraphy of the Quran - will be raised to snap and fly in the Athens breeze.

In a world in which we understand less and less, the hope and pride these athletes have in their flag is something everyone understands.

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