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Iraqis Are Grateful They Can Compete

The athletes may not win medals, but after enduring the abuses of Hussein's regime they are happy to be a part of the Athens Games.

August 10, 2004|Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — The Iraqi Olympic team, in a moment that for years seemed improbable if not impossible, arrived here Monday, the more than two dozen athletes looking in wonder at plastic cards that said each had been duly accredited and invited to take part in the 2004 Summer Games.

It was, they kept saying, like living a dream.

"I am very honored," said Mehdi Kerim, 23, of Baghdad, a midfielder on the soccer team. "I am very honored to be in Athens, among the other athletes. It is an honor for my team and an honor to represent my country. We are a free country."

The arrival of the 46-person delegation was the result of a campaign by Olympic authorities and governments worldwide. It was underwritten with political and financial support after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003.

"The IOC is delighted to have Iraq at the Games, and we look forward to welcoming its athletes," International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said in a statement.

The appearance Monday served as a counterpoint to the abuses suffered by the nation's athletes under Uday Hussein, Saddam's son, who formerly headed the Iraqi Olympic Committee and was killed in a July 2003 firefight with U.S. forces.

The high point in the journey will come Friday, athletes and officials said, when the Iraqi delegation takes part at the opening ceremony in the march of nations.

The team includes 18 soccer players, a hurdler, sprinter, boxer, swimmer, weightlifter and competitors in judo and taekwondo. All are male except sprinter Ala'a Hekmet.

Haider Ali Lazi, the judo competitor, has emerged as a likely choice to be the Iraqi flag-bearer in the opening ceremony.

"I am very happy that my team is coming without a watchdog from internal security," said Tiras Odisho, chief of the Iraqi delegation.

"Now we have a team without even one policeman. This expresses our freedom."

None of the Iraqis is expected to win a medal.

The soccer team made it here the hard way, winning in Olympic qualification rounds. Weightlifter Ali Abdul Munim Mohammed also earned his way to the Games. The others were given what the IOC typically calls wild cards, entries designed to increase participation in the Games, typically from developing nations.

The team is Iraq's largest since it sent 44 athletes to the Moscow Games in 1980. Uday Hussein took over the Olympic program in 1994; by the Sydney Games in 2000, the Iraq delegation had shrunk to four athletes.

In its Olympic history, dating to the London Summer Games in 1948, Iraq has won one medal -- a bronze in weightlifting by Abdul Wahid Aziz in 1960.

The soccer team opens play Thursday against powerful Portugal. The Portuguese are heavily favored, but as Ahmed al-Samarrai, president of the National Olympic Committee of Iraq, said, "In sport, everything is possible."

Such optimism was tempered, however, by the ongoing violence in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, by the fragile state of the recently constituted Iraqi committee and the formidable job of reconstructing the nation's sports facilities.

The Iraqi committee's annual operating budget is $10 million. By comparison, the U.S. Olympic Committee's annual budget is about $115 million.

"To run sport in Iraq, to start from zero -- $10 million is nothing," al-Samarrai said, adding that to rebuild Iraq's sports facilities would cost more than $100 million.

That kind of money is not available. The limited goal over the last year has been simply to get a team to Athens.

Since the fall of the Hussein regime, the USOC, in concert with the State Department, has underwritten thousands of dollars in airline tickets and training expenses. The IOC, through a program called Solidarity that seeks to develop sports programs around the world, said it has invested the largest amount, estimated by officials at about $85,000.

Other significant contributions, according to the IOC and Iraqi officials, have come from Romania, Canada, Germany, South Korea, Britain and Japan. Even the Iraqis' dress uniforms were donated, by Japan -- green blazers, white slacks, white shirt, white shoes and a tie striped in the Iraqi colors, red, green, black and white.

Possibly the most significant contribution, according to Olympic and Iraqi officials, has come from Mark Clark, a British advisor to the committee, trained as a lawyer, who for the last 14 months has played a key administrative role.

The goodwill has gone far in making the Iraqi team feel welcome, al-Samarrai and others said. Nonetheless, because of the violence in Baghdad and elsewhere, life in Iraq is still lived on the edge, in a way that makes sport seem simultaneously irrelevant and yet welcome relief.

On Saturday, mortar shells exploded in the parking lot outside Olympic committee headquarters in Baghdad, killing one person, a student, and wounding three, al-Samarrai said.

Pausing to collect himself, al-Samarrai said that the dead student had been on the scene by happenstance, there to collect a letter needed to apply for a scholarship.

Al-Samarrai has had two brushes with death in the last month.

On July 24, he was in a head-on crash while driving to an Olympic function near Basra, in southern Iraq. Al-Samarrai remains sore from the impact but was not seriously hurt; the three people in the other car were killed, he said. It's not clear whether the oncoming car intended to cause the collision, he said.

Earlier in July, in Baghdad, Al-Samarrai's car came under attack in what he said was an assassination attempt.

Al-Samarrai was not hurt. "It's amazing," he said. "There were bullets ... all over the car."

Odisho said of his own travels around Baghdad and the country, "The last three months, I've been driving with one hand. The other is on my pistol."

On Monday, such scenes seemed far behind. The Olympics close Aug. 29. Until then, the Iraqi team is just one among 202, here to compete.

"Thanks to God," said swimmer Mohammed Sabih Abbas, 26. "It's really a dream to be here in Athens in 2004."

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