Triumph of the spirit

Routinely jailed under Saddam for failing to win, the road to Athens was torturous for Iraq's athletes. Jean-Philippe Hamon travels to Baghdad to meet men and women who ran not for medals, but for their lives
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To plunge into the 35 years of Iraqi sport under the reign of Saddam Hussein is to flirt with heresy. It is as if all the participants in this small world are struck by amnesia when the topic arises. This piece of history is still too threatening, the memory of it too painful, the humiliation still too fresh, to be able to talk with any ease about personal experiences. There is also a sense of guilt from having come through those years more or less content, passively supporting a tyrannical regime.

It took weeks of diplomacy, meetings arranged and then cancelled, to persuade these Iraqi athletes and trainers to talk to me - to convince them that there was no question of judging them but only of listening to their testimonies. For some, the interviews proved therapeutic: there were tears and the expression of long-repressed anger. But there were also moments of laughter.

Up until 1988, and the end of the war against Iran, Iraqi sport was used as a means of uniting the country behind its leader, and promoting an international image of Iraq as the leading Arab nation. It was a time when high-class athletes were admired. But this era was replaced by what Iraqis call the "dark ages" - brought about by Saddam Hussein's relentless efforts to keep afloat a country that was broken and exhausted after eight years of war.

Sport in Iraq was then to become the plaything of Saddam's infamous eldest son Uday. This psychopath instilled terror at the heart of the country's sport. Imprisonment and torture became standard punishments for poor performances. Women athletes were raped, football became a byword for racketeering, and the cellars of the national Olympic Committee offices were transformed into a prison.

Today, this building has been destroyed but the site still resounds to the echoes of the suffering of those individuals whose only bad luck was to be part of Iraq's athletic elite. It will take a very long time for this trauma to be forgotten but, in the meantime, some of those sportsmen and women have agreed to bear witness to their experiences.

Kamal Abdou

Iraqi champion of all-in wrestling 1970 to 1980 (57kg and 62kg). Arab champion in 1975, 1976, 1978, 1979 and 1980. Bronze medallist at the Asian Games in 1974 and 1978. Fourth in the 1977 World Championships. Now working as a trainer, 53 years old.

In 1977, when I was fourth at the all-in wrestling World Championships, I was more famous in the rest of the world than I was in my own country. When I got back to Iraq, I went to see the minister for sport to tell him the good news. Nobody believed me. They carried out an inquiry to reassure themselves I wasn't lying. Two weeks later, they finally organised a party where I was presented with a television and a watch. I was always placed fourth in international competitions - it's my biggest regret. I could've got a medal at the Montreal Games in 1976 if my country hadn't boycotted the trials. That was difficult to accept.

Salman Jassem

Seventh place for the foil in the Paralympic Games in 1992. Gold medallist, 100m and 200m at the African-Arab Championships in 1997. Gold medallist in 1998 and 2002,100m, 200m and long jump. Now 42 years old.

My life changed forever on the 4 August, 1986. I was a soldier during the war against Iran and I trod on a mine in Kurdistan. I lost my left foot. Nearly all of the Iraqi Paralympic team is made up of people who were injured in that war. I'd already practised the foil before but I wasn't any good at it because I was too small. There we were all equal, in our wheelchairs. At my first international competition at the Paralympic Games in Barcelona in 1992, I was placed seventh. That was cause for celebration. We brought home a medal for discus and we had four finalists. Iraq had never before had such good results at the Games.

Farkad Jassem

Iraqi cycling champion in 1999, 2000 and 2002. Now 24 years old.

When I train on the roads of Baghdad or in the country, people always address me in English. They think I'm American. You don't often see cyclists here. There are 30 of us in all. The Iraqi Championship takes place over five different routes across the country. There's one race a month between July and November and the distances increase each month. The first race is about 100km and the last is 190km but it's the first two races that are the most difficult. They take place in the south of the country near Basra, where the temperature is about 60 degrees in the summer. The races are dangerous because of the traffic - I've often been knocked over by cars or stray dogs. Also in the countryside, we get a lot of hassle from the peasants. But I love cycling, even if my bonuses were confiscated by Uday and my cups were taken by my federation. I've just bought a racing bike for $200 that's really worth $1,500. It was pillaged from the Olympic Committee when the regime fell. It's the sort of bike I should have been given as a cyclist for the national team but Uday preferred to sell them off and let us race on out-of-date models.

Eman Sabyh

Iraqi champion, 800m and 1,500m, 1980 to 1985. Fourth in the World Junior Championships in 1981 and 1983, 800m and 1,500m. Fourth in the 1985 Asian Championships, 400m and 800m. Now 39 years old.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was no sex discrimination in Iraqi sport. When we left for a big Arab or Asian Championship, two planes would be chartered - one for the men and one for the women - and both would be full. Everybody had to do athletics at school and the best pupils were recruited by the clubs, and parents weren't worried about sending their daughters off to train. A bus came to fetch us to take us to the stadium and would take us home again afterwards. We were beginning to get to a good level, about the standard of the Maghreb girls. And then Uday arrived, and then the embargo. I know girls who had a lot of problems with him. He used to pick girls up at the University of Sport in Baghdad, and so parents started to stop their daughters from going there to train. In 1986, I had a bad injury to my left ankle and Uday offered me a deal - he'd pay for my operation in London if I joined his club. I decided to refuse, and my career was over. Since then the sport has degenerated - there are no more competitions or travelling. Today there is no standard in women's sport.

Rasoul Faleh

Iraqi bodybuilding champion in 1993. Now 35 years old.

I started working out when I was 14 so that girls would fancy me. Bodybuilding was big in Iraq at that time. I wanted to be a star but the army ruined my career. I was in the Special Commandos from 1986 to 1991. I was in the war against Iran and the Gulf War. Today, I own a gym called the Beirut Stars. Last summer, Saddam's fedayeen officers ordered me to train their soldiers. I had no choice. I was surprised when I saw them arrive - they were very thin. Any one of my lads could have crushed them with a single hand. But they were armed and they obviously had the right of life or death over us. I made them pay for my years in the military. I made them run in the road in the midday sun, I gave them extra press-ups. I wasn't at all surprised when they lost to the Americans - you could see straight away they weren't champions.

Habib Jaffar

International footballer since 1986. Now 36 years old.

I hold the record for the most prison terms, seven in all, for bad performances, for lost games, and once for a red card for a handball. My first prison stay of 12 days in 1988 was the hardest. The guards were made to train me for 12 hours in a row, from six in the morning to six in the evening. To humiliate us, there was the inevitable shaving of our heads, and beating us with a stick on the soles of our feet. Uday Hussein recruited me for his new club, Al-Rachid, in 1986. All the best players in the country were forced to join his club. To begin with, it was very advantageous to play for him. I was well paid, and there were no problems with the police. I always got a good price when I wanted to buy a car or a house. Everybody was very nice to me because I played for Uday's club. In five football seasons, we were four times champions of Iraq and won three Arab cups. The team benefited from referees who were in a position to give extra time, sometimes more than 15 minutes so that we could equalise or win. All Iraqis hated the club. Whenever we played the crowd would jeer and whistle. In 1990 Saddam Hussein brought it all to an end - the club wasn't good for his family's reputation.