It's an uphill road for Iraqi

Faisal finds no easy sledding as he seeks help from home to compete in Turin Games

Olympics

November 11, 2005|By CANDUS THOMSON | CANDUS THOMSON,SUN REPORTER

Rocketing down an icy chute face-first at better than 60 mph is the easy part of Faisal Faisal's Olympic quest. The hard part is getting his country to pay attention to him.

Since watching the Nagano Olympics in 1998, Faisal has been focused on one thing: to be the first Iraqi athlete to carry his nation's flag into the opening ceremony of the Winter Games.

He learned to drive a skeleton sled, bought his equipment and raced in international events last season. But so far, the Iraq Olympic Committee has done little to help its team of one, and time is running out.

So instead of going to Austria this weekend to race in the Europe Cup, Faisal is going to the committee's headquarters in Baghdad to plead his case.

"I don't know what to do," Faisal said in a telephone interview. "The season's already started and nothing has happened. I am frustrated. This is personal. This is what my life is all about."

He hopes the inaction is somehow tied to the observance last month of Ramadan or the inexperience of his country's Olympic Committee, formed last year after Saddam Hussein was driven from power. His son, Uday Hussein, ran the Olympic program with an iron hand for two decades, stealing money and torturing athletes.

In February 2004, the International Olympic Committee voted to reinstate Iraq and its 21 affiliated sports federations. But so far, Iraqi officials have neither assisted Faisal in getting a visa to compete in Europe nor completed the paperwork to affiliate with the international bobsled and skeleton federation.

"They say they will help me. I need them. I cannot do this alone," said Faisal, 25.

The Iraq Olympic Committee has not responded to repeated e-mail requests for comment.

Faisal caught the Olympic bug as he watched the Nagano Olympics on his way to Sydney, Australia, where he attended college. He tried to catch on as a skier and skater before finding skeleton, a sport added to the 2002 Winter Games.

With the help of U.S. Olympic and skeleton officials, he spent last winter taking a crash course -- literally and figuratively -- on the mile-long track in Lake Placid, N.Y., to earn his international license. In his final race of the season, he broke the 60-second mark, a significant achievement, to finish the America's Cup in 30th place in a field of 37 competitors.

But in July, he lost one of his strongest allies when Greg Harney resigned from his job as the U.S. Olympic Committee's international affairs director.

Still, Faisal pressed ahead with financial help from his parents. He bought a sled and returned to Lake Placid this month, hoping to hone his skills and build the experience needed to make the Winter Games.

With informal coaching from the U.S. team, Faisal competed last weekend in the America's Cup, finishing 20th out of 23.

"He's pushing as fast as Chris Soule right now, and that speaks to his ability," says U.S. coach Steve Peters, comparing Faisal with the winner of the 2003 World Cup skeleton title. "His technique needs some work, but we'll get him there."

To earn a spot to race at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, Faisal is required by the international federation to complete a minimum of five international races on three different tracks. The two Lake Placid races were the first on his checklist. But the lack of affiliation means his results probably won't count.

Further, Faisal will need to finish in the top eight of the 40 or so sliders at the Challenge Cup in Konigssee, Germany, Jan. 18-22.

If he fails to make the cut, he can still get to Turin by invitation from the IOC.

"My Olympic committee realizes how important it is to get to the Olympics, and they've even established a federation to promote winter sports," Faisal said. "I want to show the children of my country that anything is possible. But right now, my frustration is high and nothing seems possible."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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