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  • Op Ed-- Athletes as Victims in Iraq


    07/26/08

    Athletes are once again paying the price for Iraq's political instability. Athletes in training for the Beijing Olympics will stay home, thanks to the political meddling of the national government.

    When we wrote about this debacle a month ago, there was at least the supposition that some way might be found to bring Iraq to the Beijing Games, even though the IOC had provisionally suspended the NOC following a government takeover of the committee in May.

    After the inspiration and goodwill fostered by the participation of Iraq at the Athens Olympics, it would seem to be unthinkable for a government in need of good things to forego the honor of the Iraqi flag at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

    But it seems that the government prefers score-settling over nation-building.

    Despite repeated attempts by the IOC to cajole the government into backing away from the takeover of the National Olympic Committee of Iraq, the government never responded to requests for a meeting to discuss the situation.

    Nor did the government-installed NOC leadership think enough of the athletes they were supposed to serve when they let pass the July 23 deadline to submit the names of team members for Beijing.

    We're not sure exactly what the government expects from its NOC, but so far it's getting nothing.

    The IOC says it has done all it can do to get an Iraqi team to Beijing. Under the circumstances, it is not possible to include the Iraqis under the flag of the IOC, such as happened in 2000 when athletes from newly-formed East Timor competed in Sydney. In that case the NOC had not been formed, unlike Iraq.

    Surprisingly silent in all of this is the U.S. government, which pushed hard for a new NOC as part of the reconstruction in Iraq, post-Saddam Hussein. We are unaware of any pressure placed by the U.S. to convince the Iraqi government to drop its objections to the NOC leadership.

    Few events in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein have delivered unifying joy to the country than the success of its football teams competing in the Olympics and the Asian Cup.

    While Iraq did not qualify for Beijing in football, seven athletes in five other sports did get over the line.

    Now instead of Iraqi sport moving forward another step or two in Beijing, it's a big step backwards.

    Violence has been a fact of life for the Olympic Movement in Iraq for years. Under the presidency of Uday Hussein, Olympians were subject to torture, which probably explained why the teams were down to one or two athletes; none competed in Sydney.

    The insurgency and sectarian battles that broke out soon after the election of the reformed NOC in 2004 seemed to find an easy target in sport. Tennis players, taekwondo athletes, football players--all became murder victims. So too, we fear, for Ahmed Al Samarai, president of the NOCI, who disappeared with 24 colleagues when they were kidnapped at a meeting of the committee two years ago this month.

    Given this history of bloodshed, the seven athletes who will not go to Beijing may be luckier than their fallen comrades. But they are still caught in crossfire, victims all, a country poorer for the result.

    Op Ed is a weekly column of opinion and ideas from Around the Rings. Comments, as well as guest columns are welcomed: comment@aroundtherings.com