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.
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
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.