Athens, here we come

Iraq's élite athletes have suffered decades of persecution. Now they're hoping for Olympic glory
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The Independent Online

It was a lunchtime in the Baghdad Sheraton, in Saddam's Iraq.

It was a lunchtime in the Baghdad Sheraton, in Saddam's Iraq. The food was the usual chicken and rice, and it was being consumed with great energy by a dozen tall Slavic blonds in blue tracksuits, heads bent over the tables next to me. This was the Belorussian football team, here to play a friendly against Iraq. The Belorussians looked large and intimidating, but this wasn't the scariest thing about them: if they won (and they did), they could have been condemning the Iraqi footballers to more than an extra run round the pitch.

Iraq's national football team was headed by Uday Hussein, son of Saddam and a reckless sadist; and a man with an unusual idea about incentives. A couple of years ago, star footballer Sharar Haydar told how he was beaten for four days after losing a match, then beaten on the soles of his feet 20 times a day for three days, when he tried to resign. At al-Radwaniya prison, he was given "the reception" - he was dragged along a hot pavement on his back, told to roll in the sand so his wounds became infected, then forced to jump repeatedly into a pit of sewage and blood.

Uday also ran the Iraqi National Olympic Committee (INOC). He did this because, as in other countries, Olympic jobs mean power and privilege, and Uday wanted all that without having to join the army or run the secret service, like his more reliable brother Qusay. Uday made full use of the position - even the most corrupt Olympic officials elsewhere probably wouldn't dare to add an "Olympic tax" to illegal cigarettes for a reported profit of US$10m a year. He turned the Olympic offices on Palestine Street into palace and prison: the basement held hundreds of Uday's expensive cars, and the first floor housed 30 cells for torturing athletes who displeased him. For the 19 years when Uday ran the five rings around Iraq, sport meant torture, prison and rape. And Uday meant sport.

Parents forbade their daughters to compete, in case Uday's eye fell on them. Boys and girls were discouraged from excelling, because excelling meant coming to Uday's attention, and therefore - sooner or later - to his prison cells. "Before every international competition," Raed Ahmed, a weightlifting champion, once said, "we are interviewed by one of Uday's assistants and asked how we expect to fare. If, for example, you say you are going to finish in the top three, you become committed to bringing this result back home." Uday's motivational tactics might include shaving your head and beard if you lose, and perhaps urinating on you as he strolled by your cell. Falaqa, the beating of the soles of the feet, was, in Uday's mind, a logical punishment for footballers, as was threatening to blow up the team's plane if they lost international fixtures. After coalition forces bombed the Olympic building last year, troops found an iron maiden in the prison, its nails blunted by over-use. With rewards like these, Iraq could only field four athletes at the 2000 Sydney Olympics: the rest were terrified, tortured or dead.

And still Iraq continued to belong to the brotherly body of the Olympics, whose principle aim is to "protect athletes", just as it also belonged to Fifa, the world governing body for football. Even though, by 1997, there were enough defections, testimonies of abuse and human-rights investigations (by bodies such as Amnesty International and the UN) for Fifa to send two investigators to Baghdad. They interviewed a dozen footballers and exonerated Uday, seemingly oblivious to the notion that people in dictatorships were unwilling to reserve their spot in the iron maiden by testifying against the country's f most powerful lunatic. (Later, one investigator said only that "their investigative resources were very limited".) The International Olympics Committee (IOC) weren't much better, failing to investigate resounding claims of abuse until December 2003, when the London-based NGO Indict filed an official complaint. The IOC isn't known for its speed or efficiency - it only banned South Africa and Taliban-era Afghanistan after dozens of countries threatened to boycott the Games - and its timing was characteristically bizarre. In May 2003, the Ethics Committee finally threw Uday's INOC out of the Olympic movement, but by then the US had invaded, the Olympic prison had been bombed and, though he wasn't killed until July, Uday was long gone.

But the invaders are Americans, and Americans believe in the power of sport. A nationwide, decade-long antipathy towards competing for fear of torture? No problem. No equipment, no Olympic staff, no athletes? No problem. In January this year, Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) administrator Paul Bremer waved his wand, and the decision was made that Iraq would go to the Olympics after all. "Sport can transcend everything," he said. "The score board does not know democrats from monarchists! It knows only one thing: accomplishment." The CPA put its weight behind forming a new Olympic committee. More than 500 elections were held around the country, and a committee was formed, making it the most successful democratic endeavour in postwar Iraq, and fairly miraculous, given the mixture of Sunni, Shia and Kurds who had to come to agreement. It met with the approval of the IOC (it would hardly be fair if it didn't, given that Uday's methods met its approval for years) and Iraq was back in the Olympic fold.

Iraqi athletes cautiously began training again, though the tae kwon do team have few mats, and though the rowers training on the Tigris have had to abandon their boats after f they came under automatic gunfire, and they don't have boats to spare. Iraq will field competitors in sports including wrestling, weightlifting, soccer, swimming, boxing, track and field and tae kwon do - and the IOC, aware that the usual qualifying standards might be hard to achieve when your national soccer stadium is scarred by giant tracks from Bradley fighting vehicles and your athletes are terrorist targets for being pro-American, has provided enough wildcard entries to ensure that at least six Iraqis will definitely go to Greece. One, at least, will be a woman, though the INOC features no such thing (something Paul Bremer has promised to put to rights, along with the country). Female sprinter Al'aa Hikmet is one of two athletes so far issued with an official invitation to compete in Athens in August.

And the world is showing Iraq its Olympian generosity in more than troops and invasions: the US has donated US$10m to INOC, and a further US$3m to repair the damage to the al-Shaab soccer stadium, hit by American rockets as well as those Bradleys. Four weightlifters arrived in Colorado in early April for three months of training at the US Olympic wrestling facility. The Iraqi soccer squad has been promised sponsorship by Korean electronics giant LG, and is expected at the England team's Bisham Abbey training grounds this month (a relief to their German coach Bernd Stange, whose government recently insisted he return to Germany for safety). The boxing team will fight under the tutelage of Maurice "Termite" Watkins, a Texan pesticide expert and former Olympic boxer whom the CPA found working in Basra.

Termite's boxers train in a gym with a plywood ring, wearing their own clothes. The streets aren't safe enough for training runs, so they run inside. But Termite is optimistic: his pep-talk starts with the chant "Iraq is back!" And so it is, sort of. Its athletes are still stuck in poor gyms and training under automatic gunfire, but they're crawling out from under Uday's unsportsmanlike shadow, and that's a bigger accomplishment than any scoreboard could register.