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 for Iraq'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 IOC rules."
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."