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Under The Gun

Battling the clock, wretched facilities and random violence, Iraq’s new Olympic committee races to build a team for Athens

It was after midnight, and what lay ahead was a 14-hour ride across the desert of western Iraq. Still, the passengers on the decrepit bus were beaming. The Iraqi soccer team, fresh from a 4-0 victory over Oman in an Olympic qualifying round on March 3, was headed home to Baghdad.

During their match hours earlier in Amman, Jordan, the Iraqis and Omanis had played a scoreless first half in front of three dozen fans and 30,000 empty seats. Then, after a spirited speech from coach Adnan Hamad about the chance to represent their country in Athens, the Iraqis played the second half as if their lives depended on it—which for the first time in 20 years they didn’t.

After two decades of intimidation by Saddam Hussein’s eldest son, Uday—who as chairman of Iraq’s Olympic committee ordered the torture of team members he considered underperformers—athletes in Iraq are finally competing without, fear. “This is all new for us, and it’s awesome,” said the soccer team’s star, Younis Manmood. “I looked forward to riding home tonight because I knew that no matter how I played, I wasn’t going to be punished. Now we play for our country and ourselves. No one has to be concerned about being called to Uday’s office.”

In that office, as reported a year ago in SI (March 24, 2003), Uday served as judge, jury and even executioner of athletes. The nine-story Olympic headquarters building in Baghdad had a 30-cell torture chamber in the basement. There coalition troops found Uday’s notorious iron maiden—a sarcophaguslike device with spikes that pierced the body of anyone put inside—and removed it before looters gutted the building.

The Butcher’s Boy, as Uday was known, ran the Olympic committee from 1986 until he fled Baghdad last March. (He was killed four months later in a gun battle with U.S. troops.) He used the position to accumulate power and money. While he purchased exotic cars, Iraqi athletes often trained without basic equipment. “Uday knew the best way to be popular in Iraq was to associate with athletes,” says Tiras Odisho, director of day-to-day operations forIraq’s newly elected Olympic committee. “But he used the Olympic rings as a front for corrupt things.” Because of Uday’s brutal treatment of athletes and his misuse of sports funds, the International Olympic Committee last May ejected Iraq, leaving it ineligible for the 2004 Games.

Ten months later, the picture has changed dramatically. The IOC last month welcomed back Iraq, and even though the nation continues to be racked by terrorist bombings and other violence, athletes in seven sports—boxing, soccer, swimming, taekwondo, track and field, weightlifting and wrestling—are attempting to qualify for Athens. Up to four Iraqi wrestlers have been invited to train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Aware that no Iraqi athlete might qualify, the IOC has set aside wild-card entries to ensure that a total of at least six Iraqi men and women will compete in Greece.

After assuming control of Iraq in April, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) made it a top priority to help the country return to the Olympics. “Sports was high on our list because of its symbolism, because of the change it represented from the past,” CPA administrator L. Paul Bremer told SI. “Those who play are the future of this country. Developing a national sports program is important for the pride of the Iraqi people. This nation needs to have athletes walking under its flag in Athens.”

The challenges facing the Iraqi Olympic Committee seem endless. Stadiums and gyms are in disrepair. Because no foreign team will go to Baghdad to compete, the Iraqi soccer squad is forced to play its supposed home matches in neighboring Jordan. Then there’s the issue of money. Building an Olympic team under any circumstances, let alone these, is expensive.

All this fell into the lap of Mounzer Fat-fat, a Lebanese-American human rights activist who came to Iraq as a member of Bremer’s staff after four years of working for the U.N. in war-torn Kosovo. “I don’t think any of us understood that to get back into the Olympics, we had to start completely from scratch,” says Fatfat, now a senior adviser at Iraq’s Ministry of Youth and Sport. “There was almost nothing to work with. And we had to meet IOCrules.”

Under those rules the Iraqis had to hold elections for the Olympic committee and other sports bodies, starting at the club level. The CPA decreed that no member of Saddam’s Baath party would be eligible to run or even vote. “Everything you need to know about how important sports are in Iraq you can tell by how the Baathists focused on sporting clubs [under Saddam],” Bremer says. “They knew that if they controlled sports, they controlled the young.”

Odisho says sports have always been important in Iraq because Iraqis have few other forms of recreation. Early in the occupation several Iraqi nationals working with the CPA sent Bremer a memo noting that “sports can offer the distraction that will take youth off the streets…. We’d rather have them kicking a soccer ball than hooking up with some terrorist group.”

So in the late spring Bremer instructed Fatfat and his small staff to get the process started. “We held 500 elections, from the club level through to the selection in January [by sports officials and club members] of the national Olympic committee,” Fatfat says. “Remember, these were the first free elections in Iraq in 35 years. One of our greatest challenges was explaining how democracy works. We had to get people to understand that when you lose an election, you don’t grab a gun.”

The voting filled the boards with Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and Christians, groups that are squabbling over other aspects of their nation’s rebuilding—but not over sports. “Everyone, it didn’t matter where they came from or what faith they practiced, rallied around the idea of rebuilding athletics,” says Ahmed Al-Samarrai, a Sunni who was chosen Olympic committee chairman. “It was, from our perspective, a democratic success story.”

Samarrai was once one of Iraq’s most celebrated athletes. After serving as captain of the national basketball team for 11 years, he defected in 1983 and settled in London, where he made a small fortune publishing Korans and Islamic history books. In early 2003, when coalition forces began assembling to invade Iraq, Samarrai volunteered to serve as an adviser in northern Iraq.

Once it became clear that the IOC would accept a new Iraqi Olympic Committee, Samarrai had to find athletes who could compete in Athens without embarrassing their nation. It’s not as if Iraq’s Olympic history is rich—the country has produced only one medalist, weightlifter Abdul Wahid Aziz, who won bronze in 1960—but it performed respectably in boxing and weightlifting in the late ’70s and early ’80s and sent a 46-athlete delegation to the 1980Moscow Games. After Saddam handed control of the nation’s sporting fortunes to Uday, Iraqi sports gradually degenerated.

“Many young athletes who exhibited talent early weren’t allowed to play by their parents,” says Mark Clark, a CPA employee working with Fatfat. “There was a feeling that if you were too good, you would end up on Uday’s radar screen and be a candidate for torture. So the first challenge we faced was getting athletes to believe they could now play and lose and not worry about paying some kind of price.” The CPA’s campaign has drawn dozens of previously unknown athletes but few real hopefuls for Athens.

It has been particularly difficult to find talent in women’s sports. “In the early ’80s we had many women who wanted to participate,” says Iman Hussein, a phys-ed professor who hasn’t run in 20 years yet still holds the national record for women at 400 and 800 meters. “But as Uday took control, women knew his reputation for rape, and no one wanted to play. One day a few years ago at a tennis club I heard a mother send her daughter home because she heard Uday was coming through the door.”

As a result, few Iraqi women compete at the international level. The personal best of the leading 400-meter runner, 18-year-old Rasha Yaseen, is nearly five seconds slower than the record set by Iman Hussein in 1984. “I want very much to surpass Dr. Iman’s record,” Yaseen says, “but I will need much help to get there. At least now girls believe we can come out. I’ve seen more girls running in the last few months than ever.”

If Yaseen does break her record, Iman Hussein says, “it will be one of the best days of my life. I want women to get back into sports, to set new records and to become significant on the international scene again. I remember the thrill of running [at a meet] in Mexico City in 1980 and what that did for me. I want that for young girls today.”

All of this is not being accomplished without new fears, though. Samarrai regularly gets death threats. Much of the athletic rebuilding effort is housed at Saddam’s old Republican Palace, which is a frequent target of mortar fire. And one of Fatfat’s Iraqi employees, Ahmed Aoudeh, was killed execution-style in Baghdad on Feb. 11.

“That was a low point for us,” Fatfat says. “Because of the work he did with us, [Aoudeh] became known in his neighborhood as Ahmed the American. We need Iraqi nationals to work with us. After Ahmed’s murder, it put a question in some minds about whether they could be next.”

The road ahead for Fatfat and Samarrai would be much easier if Iraq were infested with more Termites—men like Maurice (Termite) Watkins, that is. Watkins, a onetime boxer who grew up working in his family’s pest-control business in the Houston area, was hired by a U.S. contractor last year to exterminate insects at U.S. Army bases inIraq.

CPA officials heard that the 47-year-old Watkins was a former fighter who had turned pro at 17, gone 58-5-2 in several weight classes and even fought for the junior welterweight title in 1980. Knowing that the Iraqi boxing team was in the same state of disrepair as its training facility in the capital, the CPA challenged Watkins to build a team. He made the 280-mile trip from Basra, where he was working, to the Baghdad training facility. The ring was made of plywood, and the fighters trained in whatever clothes they brought from home. The team hadn’t fought outsideIraq in more than two years, and some former members had vanished.

“We got together the guys we could find, took them to a soccer field and told them to start boxing, without headgear or mouthpieces,” Watkins says. “They just started duking it out, and in less than a minute, blood was all over the place. I saw we had a little talent and a lot of heart.”

Watkins moved the team to Hilla, a town about 90 minutes south of Baghdad, because he could get a better building there to train in. But the streets of Hilla are so dangerous that the team’s grueling running program is confined to a small warehouse. Twenty-four boxers made the trip to Hilla, and nine have dropped out, leaving Watkins with too few fighters to spar in all 12 Olympic weight classes. Those who have stayed, Watkins says, have started to learn the art of the sport. “Mr. Termite has taught us so much,” says Najah Salah, 24, a light flyweight. “He has taught me not just to swing but to get points. He wants us to be proud of our country. It makes me so happy when he walks through the door.”

When he enters the Hilla training facility, Watkins chants at the top of his lungs, ” Iraq… Iraq… Iraq is back!” Before long, every fighter, coach and trainer within earshot is jumping up and down, chanting along. The slogan has been emblazoned on T-shirts, hats and pins procured by the CPA for Watkins to give out as he and the team travel through the country.

“We really are back,” says middleweight Zuhair Khudhair. “We’re back to freedom, back to the world, back to living.”

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Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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