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Iraqi pride matters more than gold medals

Mariam Karouny | July 15, 2004 21:41 IST

Iraqi athletes competing in next month's Olympics feel like winners already, Iraq's Olympic chief said on Thursday.

"Holding Iraq's flag at this important international event is an achievement we are very proud of, all Iraqis are proud of it," Ahmed al-Samarrai said.

Iraq is sending a team of 17 athletes to Athens, many on a special invitation from sports federations and the Games' organisers.

The country, widely ostracised in the sporting world after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, was officially suspended from the Olympic movement in April 2003.

It was welcomed back in February 2004 after the fall of Saddam Hussein and since then the chief of the country's Olympic committee has been working round the clock to get a team together.

Winning medals is hardly the top priority, it's mostly about pride.

"The athletes are always hopeful, but what matters to us is that Iraq is going to participate in the Olympics," the 63-year-old told Reuters in an interview.

Iraq has officially qualified to compete in soccer and weightlifting while two sprinters, a boxer, a swimmer, a taekwondo athlete and a judo champion have received invitations.

It's been a long, hard slog pulling the team together, with many athletes struggling to train amid bomb blasts and the everyday need to stay alive in a country convulsed by violence.

In true Olympic spirit, other nations have stepped forward to help out, with Iraq's swimmers training in Canada and Kuwait, the weightlifters in Bulgaria, runners in Germany and boxers in the United States. Japan has also offered support.

"The countries that invited us are also paying for the cost of the training camps, for accommodation and for the flights to get there," Samarrai said.


Paul Bremer, the former U.S. administrator of Iraq and a keen athlete in his own right, was instrumental in ensuring Iraq's return to the Olympic fold. He also worked hard to ensure its Olympic committee was funded and well-supported.

It's all been a huge change for Iraqi athletes, many of whom suffered under former Olympic committee chief Uday Hussein, Saddam's despised younger son.

Described by many former athletes as a psychotic sadist, Uday regularly imprisoned and tortured those he deemed had let Iraq down. He was killed by U.S. troops in July last year.

Many former athletes still gather at the Olympic headquarters in Baghdad each day to offer their services to younger competitors, and many still bear the marks of the hardships they suffered under Uday's violent regime.

Samarrai was on Iraq's Olympic committee under the former regime. During a visit to Geneva in 1983 he went into exile and returned to Iraq only after Saddam's fall last year.

Despite the new government and the brighter outlook for Iraqi sportsmen and women, the dangers for the Olympic boss are far from over.

Driving through Baghdad earlier this week, assassins fired assault rifles and threw hand-grenades at Samarrai's two-car convoy, but failed to get their target.

"I never thought anyone would want to assassinate me," Samarrai told Reuters the day after his ordeal, shrugging his shoulders.

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