For a moment, Ahmed Naas thought his life would change — he overcame the odds to not just qualify for the Paralympics, but briefly held a world record, and was eventually awarded a silver medal. He dreamed of fame in his native Iraq, adulation from his friends and compatriots, and a chance to secure his family’s future.
He was a champion and a hero. But then he came home. “I thought I’d be a king of sport in Iraq, I thought I would live like a king, that I would be a symbol for Iraq,” said the 20-year-old. “But, what I found when I returned was the same old life. Nothing changed.”
Despite combined prize money from various Iraqi government sources of around $33,000, which he has used to purchase a small plot of land, Naas is back to work at his family’s grocery stall, is again training in spartan conditions, and living with his extended family.
Naas won over massive crowds at London’s Olympic stadium when, after hurling his javelin 43.27 metres and setting a world record in the F40 category. He was eventually beaten by China’s Wang Zhiming, who shattered Naas’s record to claim gold.
The result, though disappointing, remained impressive considering Naas only took up the javelin full-time earlier this year, and indeed had stopped training completely for a year in 2009 when one coach told him he lacked the athleticism that is required to compete.
He lives with his father, seven brothers and extended family in a small one-storey house. He still trudges to the family’s vegetable stall five days a week, where he works five hours a day, scraping together between $15 and $25 a day between him and three brothers.
“I find it very hard to deal with the fact that, after all my achievements, I had to go back to my old job. I was very proud of myself. I feel like I deserve better than going back to the same work. I go back to the same places to train, the same life. Even when I came back to Iraq, even in the airport, there was no one there waiting for me. You can imagine, I took a taxi from Baghdad to here, alone. No one cared.”
Naas works out on the roof of his family’s home with a small weighted ball gifted to him by a coach and a barbell he has fashioned out of an empty metal pipe connected to two metal cannisters filled with cement. He has no idea how much the barbell weighs but completes multiple sets of lifts before attempting to throw the ball the length of the roof.
Naas then walks for around half an hour, even in Iraq’s boiling summer, on what he calls a training ground, but which is in reality a tract of dirt between a railway track and a main road. “A champion should not have to go to a stall, to become a grocer. There should be another option.”