Iraqi Olympians dodge violence and politics on the path to Beijing
A sprinter and an archer – two of the four Iraqis who have qualified so far – struggle to train amid sectarian divides and a dearth of equipment.
It's a glorious spring day and sprinter Dana Hussein Abdul-Razzaq is busy stretching and warming up ahead of her morning training routine. Nearby, under the shade of Baghdad University's leafy trees and giant palms, students of both sexes mingle and chat.
Normally, the young athlete – one of four Iraqis who have qualified so far for the 2008 Olympics – trains with her coach and her fiancé, also a sprinter, at Shaab Stadium on the edge of Sadr City. But the recent fighting there between militias loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and US and government forces has put the stadium out of reach. So she has turned to the relative normalcy of the university, dodging pockmarks left on the track by past mortar fire and sidestepping areas crushed by tanks.
For Iraqi Olympians, their achievement is a bittersweet moment, the fruit of perseverance in the face of divided and corrupt sports institutions and severe personal risk. Just two weeks ago, the deputy head of Iraq's National Olympic Committee, Raad Jaber, was killed, along with a famed basketball coach and referee, in broad daylight at a central Baghdad bus station. The committee's chief, Ahmed al-Samarraie, has been missing since July 2006, when he was abducted with almost 30 of his colleagues.
Still, Ms. Abdul-Razzaq, who says she does not even have proper running shoes, is undaunted.
"I just shut it all out and keep at it," says the feisty track star, her hair pulled back and several gold charms gleaming around her neck. "You see how horrible this track is – and I am not even allowed to use it."
Indeed, to train on the crumbling facilities at Baghdad University, which is in the relatively safer neighborhood of Jadriyah, Abdul-Razzaq's federation is supposed to pay a monthly subscription of 500,000 dinars ($416).
But it has repeatedly failed to do so. So every time Abdul-Razzaq and her coach come in, they get into a shouting match with the guards – who finally relent and let them in. She says her federation has not even given her needed foot gear and that she's not sure whether her coach, with whom she has been training for five years, will end up accompanying her to Beijing.
Abdul-Razzaq says the only way she coped was by remaining in touch with her coach, Yussif Abdul-Rahman, in Baghdad by cellphone.
In the old days, many athletes say, their greatest horror was that they might upset the head of the Olympic Committee – Saddam Hussein's son Uday – by not performing well or failing to win medals. Athletes were routinely bullied and threatened.
Now, mirroring the country's mood, the Olympic committee and all sports federations are politicized, with officials making sure only their protégés and partisans get the required financial and institutional support or have an opportunity to compete and travel abroad – considered a real perk and sometimes a ticket for migration. There have been numerous recent incidents of athletes and sports officials overstaying their visas to seek political asylum overseas.
And, like all Iraqis, Abdul-Razzaq and her coach also had to navigate the violence and sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites over the past few years.
Abdul-Razzaq is a Shiite living in a mixed area, known as Aalam, wedged between predominantly Shiite Biyaa and predominantly Sunni Saidiyah. Coach Abdul-Rahman, a Sunni, lives in a predominantly Sunni section of Mansour.
"We cut deals with Shiite militiamen and Sunni insurgents just so I can come and pick her up for training," he says, describing how on numerous occasions they would get caught up in clashes between the two sides or dodge sniper bullets.
"Dana defeated death," her coach says admiringly. "She's a winner."
"I cannot believe I qualified," says Mr. Adnan, a member of Iraq's professional archery team."I am filled with ambition, determination, and desire to train more and more."
He won two silvers and one gold medal at the Cairo games last fall and credits his mother's persistent prayers and the relentless support of Jaber, the committee's deputy chief who was just killed.
"He nurtured us and got us new equipment. I will miss him sorely," says Adnan.
The young archer also must contend with his own tribulations. In 2006, he and his brother were attacked near their home in the neighborhood of Ameriyah by militants linked to Al Qaeda. His brother was badly wounded and the family had to flee to Syria. They came back last November, when the area was sealed by the US military with giant concrete walls and security responsibilities were handed over to the Rebels of Ameriyah – one of the numerous US-funded Sunni Arab militias made up of former insurgents and militants.
But dangers still lurk, Adnan says, describing how eight members of this same militia were arrested last week for moonlighting as a kidnap and extortion gang.
On most days, he just practices in his backyard because of the difficulties of going in and out of Ameriyah.
Adnan says the tense situation at home, combined with a lack of facilities in Iraq, is forcing him to travel to South Korea soon to train.
"I am living now for Beijing. God willing, I will clinch the medal," he says with a big smile. "Iraq needs to win and be joyous. Even the Islamic State in Ameriyah was happy when we won in soccer."
In a rare moment of national unity, Iraqis rallied around their soccer team last July when it won the Asian Cup for the first time ever.
In an effort to keep this spirit alive, a pro-government television segment running often these days shows a group of masked gunmen storming a soccer field and taking on the team. A grenade replaces the ball.
The team's star goalkeeper, Noor Sabri, shoots the grenade out of the field, and it explodes in the air. The scoreboard then flashes: "Iraq: 1; Terror: 0."