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FOR THE original administrators of the Olympic Games, political squabbling between nations was an all-too-familiar problem. On any given Sunday in ancient Greece, two or more city-states were at war—if it wasn't the Athenians against the Spartans, then it was the Corinthians against the Thebans or the Macedonians against the Thracians. So the organizers of the quadrennial contest devised the notion of the Olympic Truce: Fighting would cease during the Games, and athletes would be granted safe passage through war zones.
Some modern scholars are skeptical that Greek armies really put aside their swords and shields for a sporting contest they couldn't even watch on NBC, but if the Olympic Truce is a myth, it is one worth emulating. The International Olympic Committee never wastes an opportunity to trumpet it as an Olympic ideal; the IOC even persuaded the U.N. to formally endorse this noble notion.
So it is especially shameful that the IOC is itself one of the combatants in the conflict preventing Iraq's athletes from participating in the Beijing Olympics. Last week the IOC banned Iraq from the Games, citing rules against political interference in Olympic sports. In May the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki disbanded Iraq's National Olympic Committee (NOC), on the grounds that it had failed to hold proper intraorganizational elections. The IOC gave the Iraqis until this month to reinstate the committee. They refused.
This means that Iraq's two rowers, an archer, a weightlifter and a judoka will likely watch the Games on TV. (The deadline for entries has passed in all sports except track and field; that deadline is July 31.) On Monday, in a last-ditch effort to get the remaining two athletes into the Games—a discus thrower and a sprinter—an Iraqi government delegation asked to meet with the IOC on Tuesday to discuss reinstating the NOC.
Barring a deal, there will be no Iraqi flag at the opening ceremonies and no repeat of the jubilation that broke out from Basra to Baghdad to Erbil in 2004, when the Iraqi soccer team stormed into the Olympic semifinals.
The soccer team failed to qualify for Beijing, but many Iraqis were looking forward to following the fortunes of Dana Hussein Abdul-Razzaq, the 21-year-old sprinter. By her own admission she was never likely to survive the heats, but her mere presence in the Bird's Nest stadium would be a great victory. Dana only took up running after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and to qualify for the Games she had to cope with both death threats and real bullets. She became a poster child for sectarian harmony in a country still recovering from the savage Shiite-Sunni bloodletting in 2006 and 2007. (Dana is Shiite, and her male coach is Sunni.) Just two weeks ago she was hoping to use her moment in the Olympic limelight to broadcast a message to her countrymen. "Sports can unify the Iraqi people: no Sunnis, no Shiites, just sport for the country," she said.
Alas, the sectarian hatred running through Iraqi politics has left its bloody mark on sport. Athletes and coaches have been murdered or maimed. In the summer of 2006 the 18-member national taekwondo squad, made up mostly of Shiites, was killed by Sunni insurgents. In retaliation Shiite militias stormed the NOC—traditionally dominated by Sunnis—and kidnapped 30 officials, including the entire committee. Most were released, but the Sunni head of the committee and three others are still missing, believed dead.
The members who survived the kidnapping continued to run the NOC under the acting head, a Kurd, but fell afoul of the sports minister, a Shiite. Since the NOC was dissolved, each side has accused the other of wrongdoing: The minister says the committee was corrupt; committee members say the minister wants to install others from his sect. In Iraq today, this is politics—and sports administration—as usual. It's too much to expect politicians to do the right thing for athletes. Prime Minister Maliki is himself a Shiite partisan and has little to lose from the ban: If his countrymen blame anybody, it will likely be the IOC.
The real surprise is that the IOC has realized that there is political interference in Iraqi sport. This is the same body that had no compunctions about dealing with the Iraqi NOC when it was run by Saddam Hussein's psychopath son Uday—famous for torturing athletes who failed to live up to his expectations. During his reign the NOC's headquarters in Baghdad featured a basement prison and a torture chamber out of the Spanish Inquisition, complete with an iron maiden. For decades the IOC failed to adequately investigate reports of Uday's bestial treatment of athletes. If this willful ignorance gave the IOC the cover of plausible deniability—We didn't know he was a monster—it's harder to explain how the committee failed to notice that Uday was only appointed head of the NOC because he was the dictator's son, the very definition of political meddling. Iraq was allowed to send teams to Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta (where the Iraqi flag bearer bolted from the Olympic village and sought asylum) and Sydney.
For the IOC to deny any athletes the chance to go to Beijing is beyond hypocrisy. The Iraqi government is hardly blameless; it certainly meddled with the NOC. But the IOC's going to war on behalf of the disbanded committee is scarcely in the best interests of Iraqi athletes either.