Three years ago, under a brutal midday sun in Baghdad, I bore witness to a scene that, I thought at the time, proved that sports matter.
Eighty men showed up for a taekwondo tournament. There were just two sets of acceptable uniforms for all 80 participants. There was no fancy hall to compete in, no foam pads to fight and fall onto. So the tournament was held outside, with the temperature soaring over 120 degrees, on a concrete basketball court, and the competitors took turns putting on the sweat-soaked uniforms and helmets, and kicking and falling.
These were the behind-the-scenes goings-on as Iraqi sports officials prepared for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Just weeks before, the rush to Baghdad by U.S.-led forces had ousted Saddam Hussein; his violent son Uday had headed the Iraqi Olympic Committee.
My thoughts are once again with the Iraqi athletes and coaches who so impressed me in Baghdad, in particular with one taekwondo entrant, Raid Rasheed, who competed at the Athens Olympics in the under 176-pound (80-kilogram) division, losing to the eventual gold medalist, American Steve Lopez. My thoughts are also with Ahmed al-Samarrai, known in some accounts as Ahmed Hajiya, the president of the reconstituted National Olympic Committee of Iraq.
Al-Samarrai was kidnapped Saturday. He and his colleagues had been at a sports meeting at a cultural center in downtown Baghdad. In all, dozens were seized. Reports say they were taken by heavily armed men dressed in camouflage and police uniforms.
In May, meanwhile, 17 members of an Iraqi taekwondo squad, including four on the national team, were kidnapped on their way to Jordan, where they had hoped to obtain visas for a tournament in Las Vegas -- all 17 disappeared into the desert, with no word since. It remains unclear whether Rasheed was among them.
The head of the Iraqi taekwondo association, Jamal Abdul Karim, was among those kidnapped Saturday.
The abductions Saturday followed the killing Thursday of the Iraqi wrestling team’s Sunni coach, shot dead in a Shiite district of Baghdad.
Also in May, gunmen killed the coach of the Iraqi national tennis team and two of his players in western Baghdad; some reports have suggested the gunmen were religious extremists irate at the sight of tennis shorts. Last July, the director of a karate association was killed, his body found in a river southeast of Baghdad.
The director general of the new Iraqi Olympic committee, Tiras Odisho, was himself kidnapped last year; he was released after being ransomed. Odisho was not among those taken Saturday; he could not be reached this week for comment.
Alarmingly, no one has heard anything since Saturday about where al-Samarrai and the others might be. No motive. No ransom demands. Nothing.
As I watched that taekwondo display three years ago, I remember thinking that sports -- and in particular the lure of the Olympic Games -- represented hope, maybe just a glimmer, even when everything else seemed madness.
In the wake of kidnappings in Iraq, I wonder whether there is still hope for each of them.
I have interviewed al-Samarrai, president of the Iraq Olympic committee, many times. We have shared meals together, including one memorable dinner in Baghdad where we ate outside at a cafe that specialized in mezgouf, a grilled fish that is an Iraqi specialty. The crack of gunfire in the distance punctuated the conversation.
At another meeting in Athens, al-Samarrai told me he had just the month before survived a head-on car crash -- just days after his car came under attack in what he called an assassination attempt. Each time he had escaped unscathed.
Another episode on my trip to Baghdad in 2003 sticks with me now too. Al-Samarrai, a Sunni, was among those watching an election one night at the al-Walaa sports club. The club’s modest facilities are in Sadr City, the Shiite slum in northeastern Baghdad.
The election was among the first steps in re-forming an Olympic committee; each of the nearly 200 sports clubs in Iraq had to chose new, Saddam-free leadership; those representatives formed a general assembly; that assembly elected the leadership of the new Iraqi Olympic committee.
What transpired was a gentility, a decency and a community democracy that would stand as an example in any civics class in any U.S. high school. Each of the 14 candidates took a few moments at the microphone. One of the 14 was a huge man missing most of one leg; he hobbled to the mike on crutches. Another was a woman who guided her wheelchair to the front of the room.
After the speeches, yellow ballots were passed out, marked and counted, and a 12-year-old boy, Saif Ali Kassem, told me, “The new regime is better. Saddam’s regime prevented everything, even for children. Now we have freedom.”
Now I wonder: is that enough?