Challenges for Iraqi Athletes

The memories of dead bodies and severed limbs floating on the Tigris River still haunt Rashid Haider.

Every time Haider, considered Iraq’s best rower, gets in his scull to train for the London Olympics, the horrors of his practice sessions five years ago for the 2008 Beijing Games come flooding back.Haider sees his paddles hitting bodies, his boat rushing past the severed heads of people killed in his country’s sectarian war, unleashed by the 2003 United States-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein.

“It was a hard time,” Haider said. “The river was full of bodies. Explosions were all around us. It was just a terrible time.”Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in the violence, including more than 100 athletes, coaches and sports officials. Among those abducted and presumed killed by militants were four of the Iraqi National Olympic Committee’s top officials.

Although the streets of Baghdad have been calmer in the past two years, militants still frequently strike with deadly force. The country’s underfinanced sports institutions are intertwined with Iraq’s political crisis, and its officials often stand accused of sectarian bias and corruption — along with the rest of the ruling elite.“I feel so much better now,” Haider said. “The security is still difficult, but it is safer now to move than before and we get better results, because I train more.”

Despite harsh conditions, Iraqi athletes have in recent years qualified to compete in several international events and have won medals in regional tournaments, like the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, and in last year’s Arab Games in Qatar.For the London Olympics, Iraqi athletes hope to qualify in swimming, weight lifting, wrestling, rowing, archery, and track and field. The country also expects to gain wild-card invitations in track, wrestling and tennis.

When Haider and others trained for the Beijing Olympics, one thing that added to the mayhem of daily bombings and suicide attacks was the determination of the Shiite-dominated government to purge the country’s sports institutions of any officials suspected of having ties to the deposed Sunni-dominated regime of Hussein.

The interventions included armed raids on sports federations and a government order to dissolve the Olympic committee in May 2008, prompting the International Olympic Committee to temporarily suspend Iraq before the Beijing Games for political interference.“It was a big setback for Iraqi sport,” said Raad Hamoudi, the president of Iraq’s Olympic committee. “Because of government interference, we faced a ban and our athletes were punished.”

Hamoudi was elected to the post two years ago. Since then, he said, the country’s sporting community has somewhat recovered, although damaged training facilities and arenas, a volatile security situation, and the lack of government aid are not likely to lead to Olympic triumphs.“We want to forget about the past and be optimistic for the future,” Hamoudi said. “The Olympics in London for us are an opportunity for a new start.”The past, however, weighs heavily on the sprinter Dana Hussein.

Hussein, 26, is determined to reach the 11.38-second qualifying time for the 100 meters in London, although she says that lowering her 11.88 national record will be a challenge if her training remains confined to Iraq.Zigzagging through Baghdad, a network of police roadblocks, notorious for lengthy searches and security checks, delays movement around the city, and frustration deepens after every bombing, which occur with chilling frequency.

In addition to often not being able to reach an outdoor university field, where Hussein trains during the winter, she said she lacked money, government support, access to a gym to do fitness training, an indoor track to use during Iraq’s sizzling summers and a sports psychologist to advise her.

“I need one psychological expert to help me concentrate,” Hussein said. “Despite all these obstacles and bad security situation, I have the energy and the resolve to train, but my head is full of ideas and it distracts me, and I need to focus.”Hussein was the only woman among Iraq’s four Beijing-bound athletes after the I.O.C. lifted the ban less than a week before the 2008 Games.“It was so frustrating, so disappointing to be kept away that I cried when they told us we can go to China,” she said.

Hussein competed in five track events during last year’s Arab Games and won four medals, including a gold in the 400 and a silver in the 100. The achievements have raised her confidence for a good performance in London.“It’s my dream, my goal to be good at Olympics, anywhere they are in the world,” Hussein said.

Haider, a 29-year-old rower, was also part of the Beijing team. He competed in double sculls with Hamza Hussein. They finished last, but it was the political wrangling before the Games and the instability in Iraq after their return that prompted Haider to consider quitting sports and leaving his country.

He fled to Sweden for a year, came back after some calm had been restored in Baghdad and started to train in single sculls. The Iraqi Rowing Association recognized his potential, improved the training facilities and installed a gym in the makeshift club on the banks of the Tigris. It even bought rowing machines for the Olympic hopefuls for dry training at home, in case they cannot reach the river.

The rowers also attended training camps abroad, including a monthlong session in the United States before the 2010 Asian Games.The investment yielded results as Haider won Iraq’s first medal at the event, finishing third in the men’s single sculls, five seconds behind the winner.

Like Dana Hussein, Haider is focused on qualifying for the London Games. While he and other Iraqi Olympic hopefuls are in better form than they were four years ago, they say they are also being realistic, and know they will not be competing for top spots in London.Iraq has won only one bronze medal since its first appearance at the Olympics in 1948, and that was at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, where Abdul Wahid Aziz claimed a bronze medal in weight lifting.

“There are so many athletes who are so much better than we are,” Haider said. “I am hoping for a good race, a good time in the Olympic race, but a medal, I don’t think it will happen.”Karar Mohammed Jawad, a 17-year-old weight lifter and likely Olympian, disagreed.Unburdened by Iraq’s political battles over the Beijing Games and spared from the horrors of the sectarian war in Baghdad, Jawad, who is from the southern city of Kut, took a gold medal in the 2011 Arab Games. He aims to not only qualify for the London Olympics, but also win a medal.

“I watched the Beijing Games on TV,” Jawad said. “My only thoughts at that time was how to qualify for the next Games and be a real participant in these Games instead of watching it only.“I will do my best to achieve good results for Iraq at the Olympics. My ambition in London would be wining a medal for my country.”

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