So in the late spring Bremer instructed Fatfat and his small staff to get the process started. "We held 500 elections, from the club level through to the selection in January [by sports officials and club members] of the national Olympic committee," Fatfat says. "Remember, these were the first free elections in Iraq in 35 years. One of our greatest challenges was explaining how democracy works. We had to get people to understand that when you lose an election, you don't grab a gun."
The voting filled the boards with Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and Christians, groups that are squabbling over other aspects of their nation's rebuilding—but not over sports. "Everyone, it didn't matter where they came from or what faith they practiced, rallied around the idea of rebuilding athletics," says Ahmed Al-Samarrai, a Sunni who was chosen Olympic committee chairman. "It was, from our perspective, a democratic success story."
Samarrai was once one of Iraq's most celebrated athletes. After serving as captain of the national basketball team for 11 years, he defected in 1983 and settled in London, where he made a small fortune publishing Korans and Islamic history books. In early 2003, when coalition forces began assembling to invade Iraq, Samarrai volunteered to serve as an adviser in northern Iraq.
Once it became clear that the IOC would accept a new Iraqi Olympic Committee, Samarrai had to find athletes who could compete in Athens without embarrassing their nation. It's not as if Iraq's Olympic history is rich—the country has produced only one medalist, weightlifter Abdul Wahid Aziz, who won bronze in 1960—but it performed respectably in boxing and weightlifting in the late '70s and early '80s and sent a 46-athlete delegation to the 1980 Moscow Games. After Saddam handed control of the nation's sporting fortunes to Uday, Iraqi sports gradually degenerated.
"Many young athletes who exhibited talent early weren't allowed to play by their parents," says Mark Clark, a CPA employee working with Fatfat. "There was a feeling that if you were too good, you would end up on Uday's radar screen and be a candidate for torture. So the first challenge we faced was getting athletes to believe they could now play and lose and not worry about paying some kind of price." The CPA's campaign has drawn dozens of previously unknown athletes but few real hopefuls for Athens.
It has been particularly difficult to find talent in women's sports. "In the early '80s we had many women who wanted to participate," says Iman Hussein, a phys-ed professor who hasn't run in 20 years yet still holds the national record for women at 400 and 800 meters. "But as Uday took control, women knew his reputation for rape, and no one wanted to play. One day a few years ago at a tennis club I heard a mother send her daughter home because she heard Uday was coming through the door."
As a result, few Iraqi women compete at the international level. The personal best of the leading 400-meter runner, 18-year-old Rasha Yaseen, is nearly five seconds slower than the record set by Iman Hussein in 1984. "I want very much to surpass Dr. Iman's record," Yaseen says, "but I will need much help to get there. At least now girls believe we can come out. I've seen more girls running in the last few months than ever."
If Yaseen does break her record, Iman Hussein says, "it will be one of the best days of my life. I want women to get back into sports, to set new records and to become significant on the international scene again. I remember the thrill of running [at a meet] in Mexico City in 1980 and what that did for me. I want that for young girls today."
All of this is not being accomplished without new fears, though. Samarrai regularly gets death threats. Much of the athletic rebuilding effort is housed at Saddam's old Republican Palace, which is a frequent target of mortar fire. And one of Fatfat's Iraqi employees, Ahmed Aoudeh, was killed execution-style in Baghdad on Feb. 11.
"That was a low point for us," Fatfat says. "Because of the work he did with us, [Aoudeh] became known in his neighborhood as Ahmed the American. We need Iraqi nationals to work with us. After Ahmed's murder, it put a question in some minds about whether they could be next."