For Iraqi Olympians, Tokyo’s dream is only part of the game

BAGHDAD: For the four Iraqi athletes who traveled to Tokyo, there is no question of a realistic medal. After overcoming war, politics and the pandemic, their dream is simply to participate.

With state financial support cut off by political struggles for most of the run-up to the Games and their stranded foreign coaches unable to offer more than virtual advice, the small team of Iraqi Olympians almost got there. by its own efforts.

Until November last year, when a new national Olympic leader was elected, watched over by the International Olympic Committee via video link, Iraq’s very participation in the Games was in doubt.

A nearly two-year battle for control of the National Olympic Committee’s $ 25 million (RM 105 million) budget has seen Iraq ostracized from the IOC and its athletes deprived of the monthly stipends they rely on for prepare for competitions.

But despite the loss of state financial support and the difficulties of getting to the qualifying events during the coronavirus pandemic, two Iraqi hopefuls managed to qualify for Tokyo.

Rower Mohammed Ryadh, 27, will compete in the men’s single scull for the second straight game.

But he has no illusions about his medal chances after his French coach of the past nine years, Vincent Tassery, who prevented him by pandemic-related restrictions from traveling to Baghdad for rower training on the Tiger.

“I have a French trainer and because of Covid he couldn’t come to Iraq so he is sending me instructions by email which I have to work on on my own,” said Ryadh. AFP at his makeshift training base by the river.

“So the point is just to be in the Olympics. We both know it’s not even worth thinking about a medal,” admitted the rower.

To date, Iraq has won only one Olympic medal – a silver medal in weightlifting in Rome in 1960 – but it is not for lack of trying.

At the Rio 2016 Games, a total of 21 Iraqi athletes competed in a range of disciplines, including football, judo, boxing and track and field as well as rowing.

But this year only one other Iraqi outside of Riyadh has qualified as a right – sprinter Dana Hussein, 35, for the women’s 200 meters.

Hussein left in mid-June to claim her place with a qualifying time of 22.51 seconds as she won gold at the Pan-Arab Athletics Championship in Tunis.

Two other Iraqis were given wildcard spots after approaching their qualifying scores – 400-meter specialist Taha Hussein and shooter Fatima Abbas.

The four constitute the smallest team of Olympians in Iraq since its Games in London in 1948.

Iraqi Olympians were all children when Saddam Hussein’s long years in power ended with the US-led invasion in 2003.

But the country’s Olympic movement is only now recovering from the brutal two-decade hold of the dictator’s sadistic eldest son, Uday, who allegedly tortured athletes he believed to have underperformed.

The Uday-led committee was dissolved by the US-led occupation authority after the invasion along with all other instruments of Saddam’s regime.

But the manner of its dissolution, and the uncomfortable fact that Saddam’s Iraq competed in several Olympics before the dictator’s overthrow, left a question mark over the legitimacy of the body that replaced it.

This allowed the sports ministry to launch a campaign to oust him in February 2019, leaving athletes in financial limbo as the rump committee fought for control with a commission appointed by the ministry.

A new committee was finally set up last year which organized new elections to the satisfaction of the IOC in November and Iraq returned to the Olympic fold.

But little public money is allocated to help individual athletes cover the travel and training costs involved in qualifying.

“The sad thing is that you are attending these qualifying events and our authorities really don’t care,” said sprinter Dana Hussein. AFP.

“It took me 18 months of effort to secure my place in Tokyo. I myself had to pay a large part of the training costs abroad because the athletics federation has very limited means. “

Hussein called on the Iraqi authorities to develop a long-term plan for investment in sports infrastructure that the country has been deprived of during decades of war and international sanctions.

“We need a long-term roadmap – money, equipment and modern sports infrastructure,” she said. – AFP

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