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COLUMNISTS

Tue, August 10, 2004

Iraq's Games of freedom


The gold medal for drama, perseverance and tragedy can be presented now, three days before the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.

The Iraqi Olympic team has arrived here in Athens.

The team of 24 men and one woman has arrived, with a tale of death threats, without money or much of a country, without coaching or coaches. Just here to be part of the world again.

A world the Iraqis live in that none of us can comprehend.

A week ago, a bomb, killing one and injuring four, was left as a warning at the footsteps of the National Olympic Committee office in Baghdad. A warning of a country still divided. And just this past Sunday, with two buses of athletes escorted to the airport by a parade of police, the Royal Australian Air Force -- at its expense -- flew the Iraqi Olympic team to Greece.

"The takeoff was scary," said Mohammad Abbas, the one-man Iraqi swim team who trained in Vancouver before the Games. "We were flying in a crazy kind of way: Right, left, up, down. We were all over the place. We had to escape the bombs."

Time was, it was more frightening to return to Iraq after an Olympics than it was to leave this time.

"In the past, if you made a mistake, if you lost, you got punished," said Dr. Tiras Anwaya, the Iraqi chef de mission. "Now, you can shoot at the goal and miss and not be afraid.

"I can tell you, I have friends, people I know, who played (soccer) for Iraq. They lost and when they got home, they were sent to jail. Some of them were tortured. Some of them were never seen again. He (Saddam Hussein) thought you had to win every match, no matter what. You couldn't lose or you would lose your life."

They are telling these stories at the athletes village because they want to and because they can. They are telling them with a sense of celebration, because they are here, because they feel free, because they want the world to know that while not everything is all right in Iraq, it is getting there.

"We are so very proud to be here," Anwaya said. "We have always lived with hope."

Without money or any real hope of medals, Iraq still is hopeful, offering up cash prizes for any podium finishes. A gold medal is worth $25,000. A silver will pay out at $15,000. A bronze will earn you $10,000.

"Do you have the money?" Anwaya is asked.

"No," he said. "But I hope they will collect on this."

This isn't about money or medals. It is about a nation changed, a dictator dethroned, athletes who just want to fit in among the best in the world.

More than 20 years ago, Ahmed Abdul Assamarai was one of the leading sporting figures in Iraq. He was a basketball player, a hero, team captain for more than a decade. One day, he decided he couldn't live there anymore.

He returned from exile after the fall of Saddam not only to become president of the National Olympic Committee but to work to get Iraq voted back in to the Olympics. When asked how many medals they would win here his answer was: "It doesn't matter.

"We're starting from ground zero," he said, using a most unfortunate phrase. "It's like a dream and we are lucky. Not just for me, for Iraqi athletes.

"Iraqi people want to live like the rest of the world. For us, being here means success."

The honour of carrying the Iraqi flag in Friday's opening ceremony has been given to judoka Haider Lazim.

He says he will be representing all of Iraq "from the north to the south, from all over" and his teammates will proudly follow.

TOO PERSONAL

"I'd kill myself if I didn't walk," said Abbas, demonstrating his own brand of national fervour. "That's my dream for four years.

"You can ask me what my emotions will be, but I can't say now. I can't explain that. It is so personal."

His term in the army ran out two weeks before the war in Iraq began. The pool he trained in was taken over by the U.S. army for its own use. For a year, the year before the Games, he stayed inside, didn't train, watched his country at war.

When asked his memories of Saddam, he stares blankly and lies.

"I don't remember," he said.

"That's something from the past. This is the new Iraq.

"I'm looking to the future."


Does Canada's low-medal haul in Athens bother you?
Yes, it depresses me
No, it's just sports
I'm disappointed, but not worried
We'll get 'em in Turin
Don't care

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