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Carrying the Torch for Iraq

The devastated nation's athletes dream of the 2004 Olympics, but not of medals. Just getting a team there would be a triumph.

November 26, 2003|Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Ali Awad Hadeel is a weightlifter with a dream. As he hoists hundreds of pounds of metal over his head -- then lets the bar crash onto a wooden platform with a clang -- he dreams that maybe, just maybe, he could be part of an Iraqi Olympic team next year.

The hall in eastern Baghdad where he and a handful of others train is dusty, noisy and hot. There are six fluorescent lights on the ceiling. Three work -- when there is electricity. The ceiling fan is broken. There is no drinking fountain, no showers.

This is hardly the stuff of Olympic glory. But for some of Iraq's leading athletes, dreams may yet trump deprivation.

"It is the dream of every athlete to be part of the Olympic Games," said Hadeel, 27, one of his country's best lifters in the lightweight division.

The International Olympic Committee, which sent a three-man fact-finding delegation to Iraq last summer, and the U.S.-led occupation coalition have made it a mission to get an Iraqi team to the 2004 Summer Games in Athens.

The sight of Iraqis parading in the opening ceremony Aug. 13 would provide a potent symbol of renewal and recovery, in contrast with the violence that has torn the country since U.S. and British forces toppled Saddam Hussein in April.

L. Paul Bremer III, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, said sending an Iraqi team to the 2004 Games is a high priority.

"It's going to be a symbol that Iraqis are free, that it's back, that its sports are no longer the plaything of the elite," he said in an interview. "That Iraqis are again responsible for their own country."

For the IOC, Iraq presents a test of the Olympic credo that sport can help spread peace and goodwill.

"After 9/11, you had all these athletes coming together from around the world in a spirit of brotherhood," said IOC President Jacques Rogge of Belgium, referring to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. "There were Muslims. There were Christians. There were Jews. They were peacefully together in the Olympic Village. That's a strong signal."

For Iraqis, their country's return to the Olympics would have an added significance.

"Freedom," Hadeel said when asked what it would mean to walk into the Olympic stadium behind the black, green, red and white Iraqi flag. "It's about freedom."

Phebe Marr, a leading U.S. authority on Iraq, said participating in the Games would help repair one of the country's most valuable assets.

"The Iraqi identity is the most important thing we have to develop," said Marr, a retired professor at the National Defense University in Washington and author of "The Modern History of Iraq."

"That spirit has been badly eroded over the past 10 years. It's clear that spirit has to be nurtured. That's what the Olympics is all about -- participating in something internationally, being part of something bigger than yourself."

The IOC delegation, after meeting with Iraqi athletes, coaches and former sports administrators, developed a list of potential Olympians.

IOC officials have promised to offer training subsidies to as many as two dozen athletes to help them prepare for qualifying competitions.

They also have vowed to revive the Iraqi Olympic Committee, which withered during the Hussein years, as an organizational and fund-raising arm of the country's Olympic effort.

Iraq has nearly 200 athletic clubs, akin to YMCAs, that serve as an Olympic feeder system. But their gyms and fields are in disrepair.

Training facilities for Olympic-caliber athletes have been devastated by wars, economic sanctions, neglect and looting. Violence remains a daily threat to athletes and coaches.

"In Iraq, everything is destroyed," said Suhail Najim Abdullah, 50, president of the Iraqi tennis federation. "The same in sport."

Yet a will to compete drives the country's best athletes.

At a tennis club with two clay courts west of Baghdad, Audai Ahmod Jihad, coach of the men's national tennis team, works with Iraq's three remaining players who have world-class potential.

"We've lost equipment. We've lost our training centers. But we've survived," said Jihad, whose players practice early in the morning or from 6 to 8 in the evening.

Jihad's charges suspended their practices after the U.S.-led coalition invaded in late March. On April 9, Hussein's regime collapsed. Three weeks later, President Bush declared an end to major combat, and the war yielded to a stubborn guerrilla conflict.

Jihad's tennis practices resumed in June, as soon as he and the players found a location that seemed safe. "We insist," Jihad said. "We must continue to train."

Suffering Under Uday

Iraq fielded its first Olympic team in London in 1948. It earned its lone Olympic medal in Rome in 1960 -- a bronze won by weightlifter Abdul Wahid Aziz in the lightweight division.

Iraq registered some regional sports success in the early years of Hussein's rule, which began in 1979. It won the men's soccer tournament at the 1982 Asian Games and fielded its biggest Olympic team ever in Moscow in 1980 -- 44 athletes.

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