Carrying the Torch for Iraq

Times Staff Writer

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 may yet trump deprivation.

"It is the dream of every athlete to be part of the Olympic Games," said 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 last summer, and the U.S.-led occupation coalition have made it a mission to get an Iraqi team to the 2004 Summer Games in Athens.

The sight of Iraqis parading in the opening ceremony Aug. 13 would provide a potent symbol of renewal and recovery, in contrast with 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, said 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," he said in an interview. "That Iraqis are again responsible for their own country."

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," said 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 said 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, said 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," said 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 the Hussein years, as an organizational and fund-raising arm of the country's Olympic effort.

Iraq has nearly 200 athletic clubs, akin to YMCAs, that serve as an Olympic feeder system. But their gyms and fields are in disrepair.

Training facilities for Olympic-caliber athletes have been devastated by wars, economic sanctions, neglect and looting. Violence remains a daily threat to athletes and coaches.

"In Iraq, everything is destroyed," said Suhail Najim Abdullah, 50, president of the Iraqi tennis federation. "The same in sport."

Yet a will to compete drives the country's best athletes.

At a tennis club with two clay courts west of Baghdad, Audai Ahmod Jihad, coach of the men's national tennis team, works with Iraq's three remaining players who have world-class potential.

"We've lost equipment. We've lost our training centers. But we've survived," said Jihad, whose players practice early in the morning or from 6 to 8 in the evening.

Jihad's charges suspended their practices after the U.S.-led coalition invaded in late March. On April 9, Hussein's regime collapsed. Three weeks later, President Bush declared an end to major combat, and the war yielded to a stubborn guerrilla conflict.

Jihad's tennis practices resumed in June, as soon as he and the players found a location that seemed safe. "We insist," Jihad said. "We must continue to train."

Suffering Under Uday

Iraq fielded its first Olympic team in London in 1948. It earned its lone Olympic medal in Rome in 1960 -- a bronze won by weightlifter Abdul Wahid Aziz in the lightweight division.

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 ever in Moscow in 1980 -- 44 athletes.

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

Uday 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 U.N. 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," said 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," said 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."

When the men's basketball team went to a tournament in Lebanon in 1999, the Iraqi coaches were taken aback when their players were offered Gatorade. Unfamiliar with the sports drink, they urged the players to avoid it.

"The coaches say, 'Please, please.... Do not drink this juice,' " recalled Majeed Hameed Mahmood, 29, a forward on the team since 1998. "They thought it would make the players thirsty."

By 2000, Iraq's Olympic contingent had dwindled to four athletes. In contrast, the Summer Games encompass 28 sports. Iraq has federations, the backbone of a national Olympic program, in only 22 sports, and those organizations struggle to survive.

The gymnastics federation, for example, was allotted $5,000 by the Iraqi Olympic Committee in 2002, said Yaroub K. Hossein, a longtime federation official. USA Gymnastics spends that much just on medals for its national championships. Its overall budget is $15 million a year.

The Iraqi gymnasts never actually saw any of the promised $5,000, Hossein said. "A dollar was something you could only dream of."

Looters Rule

Iraqi athletes were among those who cheered loudest at the news that Uday Hussein had been killed July 22, along with his brother Qusai, in a firefight with U.S. troops in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

But the postwar lawlessness has hindered the Olympic effort along with the rest of Iraq's reconstruction.

Looters swarmed the headquarters of the Iraqi fencing federation, a concrete building in eastern Baghdad, shortly after officials had received a donation of $1 million worth of equipment. Nearly all of it was stolen -- more than 400 swords and hundreds of pairs of shoes.

Air conditioners were ripped from the center's walls; every window in the training hall was shattered.

"Stupid, stupid, stupid," said Arminak Makardichian, a veteran fencing official.

Nearby, at the Olympic soccer complex, the extent of the damage stunned U.S. military authorities.

"Every door was stolen," said Army Lt. Col. Bobby Towery, 42, of Oxford, Miss., whose logistics squadron was based at the complex. "Every generator was stolen. Every wire was cut. Every glass was broken. All the commodes and urinals were stolen. We're rebuilding it piece by piece."

The weightlifting hall where Ali Awad Hadeel works out has a few remaining weight discs -- but none of the chocks that keep the weights from sliding off the bar, essential to preventing injury.

Thousands of soccer balls were pilfered from various facilities. So were the cycling federation's bicycles.

At Baghdad University's gymnastics training center, a forlorn sight greeted the IOC delegation: The floors had been stripped of their foam pads, and a dead pigeon lay on a pommel horse.

The university's indoor aquatics center was fouled by dirt and grunge that had swirled through broken windows. Elsewhere, looters had ripped the polyurethane floor off a team handball court.

Odisho, touring many of the sites with the IOC visitors, succumbed to a moment of sadness when he saw a poster for the 1980 Moscow Games still hanging in the Baghdad University library. "It's like raising a child for 25 years, and it dies on you," he said.

Signs of Hope

The windows are all broken. The scoring machines don't work. A generator throws off choking fumes. But practice is spirited as Iraq's elite fencers, men and women, work out in the sport's national training center.

"Listen to me," said Ashken Sarkis Abo Kakavian, 20, Iraq's top-ranked female fencer. "I am only one girl. But I want my country to be the best country in the world. In these fencing clothes, it's very hot. But I want this country to evolve. You understand?"

In a sports club a few miles away, two of the best table tennis players in Iraq exchange practice volleys.

"I feel lucky to have lived for this moment," said Moyed Hamed, 40, who was taken prisoner during the Iran-Iraq war and spent 10 years in an Iranian prison.

Hamed and his practice partner, Abbas Mihsin, play in a room with a jagged hole in one wall that the little yellow balls find with regularity. The Olympic hopefuls stop playing to fish out the lost balls, blindly reaching into the wall while on hands and knees.

"For years there was no hope," Hamed said. "Now we see."

IOC and coalition officials describe their Olympic rebuilding effort in modest terms. They talk of sending at least four Iraqi athletes to the 2004 Summer Games and possibly as many as 10.

In general, Iraqi athletes must qualify for the Olympics under complicated rules set by international sports federations.

But Olympic officials are expected to reserve a minimum of four slots for Iraqis -- two swimmers and two track-and-field athletes yet to be identified -- under the IOC's "universality" policy, which seeks to include competitors from as many nations as possible.

Ismail Khaleel, 46, a boxer who competed at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, said his country faces a long road back to Olympic respectability. Iraq will not have a chance at a medal, he said, until the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.

"If God is willing," he added.

An Iraqi team took part recently in the World University Games in South Korea -- four athletes in taekwondo, one in judo. They lost in early rounds.

Three Iraqi swimmers raced in the world championships in Barcelona, Spain, in July. Each was eliminated in qualifying heats.

Seven Iraqis competed in the world outdoor archery championships in New York, also in July. All were eliminated in the first round.

None of this has diminished enthusiasm at the weightlifting hall.

Hadeel, a lightweight, took second place in a regional tournament last year in Amman, Jordan. His pal, Mohammed Abdul Ali, a bantamweight, won the gold medal.

Amar Y. Hussein, a heavyweight, said he has a personal best of 210 kilos (about 462 pounds) in the clean-and-jerk, which would put him among the 15 best in the current world rankings if he were to repeat it in competition.

Hussein has no job, no income. He worked at a spare-parts store in Baghdad run by his father, until it closed. He and his wife have a 3-year-old son and share a house with seven other relatives.

"The situation now -- it's difficult to get food," he said.

At Hadeel's house, nine people live under one roof, including his pregnant wife and his parents. They eat mostly rice and vegetable stew, with meat once, perhaps twice, a week.

In developing nations, the IOC typically awards subsidies in the months before the Games to athletes it deems deserving. The amounts range from $1,200 a month to $2,500.

Ali, the bantamweight lifter, a student at a vocational school, lives in a four-room house in Baghdad that holds 16 people. The thought of an Olympic subsidy, of marching into the big stadium in Athens, seemed at once real and impossibly distant.

"It would be a miracle," he said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°