For Iraqi and Afghan Olympians, victory is just being there
There is only one way that Afghanistan could hope to win a medal at this year's Olympics, and that is if buzkashi were one of the events.
But the galloping tribesmen's game of polo, played with a goat carcass instead of a ball, is not recognized by the International Olympic Committee. So Afghanistan has sent a more conventional team to Athens, comprising two sprinters, a boxer, a wrestler, and a judoka.
They are no-hopers in the medals race. But the dramatic successes of the Iraqi soccer squad have shown what sort of spirit the Games can arouse even in the most troubled teams, and they offer a happy reminder of what sports, and the Olympics, are meant to be about.
The Iraqi team's victories over Portugal and Costa Rica, taking them through to the quarterfinals, have allowed their strife-torn countrymen to imagine the apparently impossible - a medal. But simply being in Athens, taking part in the Games, is a triumph in itself for athletes who have dodged bullets, battled prejudice, and dreamed very hard to get here.
"On an individual level they have all faced difficult challenges getting to the start line," said Mark Clark, the British adviser to the Iraqi contingent, in Athens last week.
For all these athletes, sport has served a purpose beyond the thrill of victory. For Raed Rashid, an Iraqi tae kwon do champion, it helped him deal with the pain of his father's arrest by Saddam Hussein's police when he was 4 years old.
"Tae kwon do cooled my burning heart," he says. "I was upset and angry. They took my father from my house" - and Rashid never saw him again.
Friba Razayee, a 17-year-old Afghan judo competitor, sees sport as a path to wider change in her tradition-bound society. "Through sports women can gain their rights," she says.
Sport has a checkered history in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Hussein put his notoriously brutal son Uday in charge of all sports, and players were terrified of being tortured if they lost. In fact, a grim collection of torture instruments found in the basement of the Iraqi National Olympic Committee headquarters is now on display at Shaab stadium in Baghdad. Uday Hussein's leadership also put Iraqi women off high-level sports: They were afraid of being raped by the serial womanizer.
In Afghanistan, women were simply banned from taking part in sports under the Taliban government, and for a long time men were allowed to compete only in traditional flowing Afghan dress. The stadium in Kabul was used more often for public executions than for athletic meets.
Though Uday Hussein is now dead and the Taliban ousted from power, training to world-class level is still almost impossible for athletes in these countries - not least because of the shortage of money.
The Afghan authorities set aside just $1.87 million for sports this year. The US-led Coalition Provisional Authority that ran Iraq until last month was more generous, but the national soccer team had to play all its qualifying matches abroad because of the violence wracking their country. "We are beginning from nothing," says Hussein Saeed Mohammed, president of the Iraqi Football Association, although he points out that the team has had a successful past, including victory in the 2000 Asian under-19 championship.
Afghanistan's top female sprinter, Robina Muqimyar, has had training challenges too: She was allowed into the Kabul stadium only twice a week, when it was closed to men. The rest of the time she trained on her school's basketball court, because she could not run in public.
In Iraq, Ala Hikmat, who will run the women's 100 meters in Athens, could get to a stadium, but she trained in secondhand sneakers. And to avoid firefights on the way home, she had to be careful to leave the stadium before dark.
No question, these are not ideal circumstances in which to prepare for the Olympics. "Most competitors have top medical facilities and training facilities for several years before ever being considered for the Olympic team," says Stig Traavik, a Norwegian diplomat who has been working with the Afghan National Olympic Committee. "The [Afghan] athletes have been training seriously with professionals for [only] several months."
Inevitably, it shows. Massoud Azizi, a 100-meter specialist, runs the distance in 11.03 seconds, a good second slower than the probable winning time in Athens. "There is a big gap between my time and the others, but I didn't have the same resources as they did," he points out.
A number of countries have helped out. The Afghan Olympic competitors trained for several weeks with Iranian coaches in Tehran. Canada hosted two Iraqi swimmers, Rashid did tae kwon do training in South Korea, and the US Boxing Federation took an Iraqi boxer under its wing.
At the same time, the International Olympic Committee has spent money from its Solidarity Fund, channeling some TV revenues to athletes in countries where they need help. The Iraqi soccer squad and an Iraqi weight lifter qualified for the Games on their own merits. The runners and swimmers for both countries are there under a program that allows every nation to send one man and one woman to represent it in athletics and swimming.
The other athletes from these countries are in Athens on special - and rare - IOC invitations. "We don't want to allow just any athlete to take part," says IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies. "But the whole philosophy behind the Olympic movement is its universality."
Thus Rashid was invited because he managed to beat the reigning tae kwon do world champion in qualifiers last year, even though he did not make the final cut. And Afghan boxer Basharmal Sultani was invited: He needed to come in second in the Asian qualifiers for his weight, but managed only third place.
Still, these athletes bring a special dimension to the Games. Muqimyar may not medal in her event, "but the fact that she is here is courageous and inspiring," says Said Mahmood Zia Dashti, head of the Afghan National Olympic Committee. "She is trying, and I am proud of her for that."
• Orly Halpern in Baghdad and Halima Kazem in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this story.