Disbanding of committee leads to Iraq's ban from Games

Updated: July 24, 2008, 5:30 PM ET
Associated Press

BAGHDAD -- Just two weeks before the start of the Olympics, Iraq was told Thursday it's not welcome in Beijing because of a political feud in Baghdad that angered the games' guardians and exiled a country that arrived to a roaring ovation at the opening ceremony four years ago.

The International Olympic Committee told Iraqi sports officials in a letter that it would uphold its ban imposed in June after the government in Baghdad replaced its national Olympic panel with members not recognized by the IOC.

The IOC had called the move unacceptable government interference.

In Iraq, it also smacked of the lingering sectarian bitterness between the new Shiite power brokers and the Sunnis who were once favored under Saddam Hussein -- whose son, Odai, ran the nation's Olympic committee as a personal fiefdom and was accused of torturing athletes who came up short.

"Clearly we'd very much like to have seen Iraq's athletes in Beijing," said IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies. "We are very disappointed that the athletes have been so ill-served by their own government's actions."

But Davies suggested there was still a possibility for last-ditch talks to salvage Iraq's place before the games open Aug. 8.

"If there can be some movement and if a resolution can be found, that's still an open door," she told CNN. When asked if there's a window of about a week, she said "Correct."

At the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, the crowd at the opening ceremony rose to its feet as the small Iraqi team entered the stadium for the first Olympics since the fall of Saddam. The team was led by Najah Ali, a 106-pound boxer who carried the red-white-and-green flag. Later, the pint-sized underdog pumped his fists after winning a bout in an early round and shouted from the ring that his victory was "a symbol of freedom."

Iraq's soccer team also became one of the feel-good stories of Athens when it made a surprising run to the semifinals -- only to be defeated by Italy 1-0 in the bronze-medal game.

This year, at least five Iraqi athletes were expected to compete in Beijing in sports including archery, judo, rowing and weightlifting. Their spots were given to other nations by the IOC.

Iraqi sports officials reacted with disbelief and outrage as they watched the efforts for Beijing vanish. Iraq has only one medal -- a bronze in weightlifting in 1960 -- since its first appearance at the Summer Olympics in 1948.

"Unjust," said Fawzi Akram, a member of the sports committee in parliament. "Iraq is passing through an exception period and should be given special consideration."

The official who received the IOC's letter -- Jassim Mohammed Jaafar, the minister of sport and youth -- grumbled: "We reject this unfair decision."

But it's been coming to a head for months.

In May, Iraq's government dissolved the 11-member National Olympic Committee. Among the claims was that it was illegitimate because it lacked enough members for a legal quorum -- even though four members of the committee, including its chief, were kidnapped two years ago and their fates remain unknown.

There's also possible echoes of Iraq's sectarian rifts. The Youth and Sports Ministry is dominated by Shiites who also control the government. Iraq's Olympic Committee had included several holdovers from the Saddam era.

The IOC banned Iraq in June, but said it was open for talks. Iraq, too, promised to meet the IOC and present "solid evidence" of corruption, unfair elections and other alleged failings by the committee.

But on Thursday, the IOC said the deadline to open negotiations had run out -- just as athletes begin their final preparations for Beijing.

"We are deeply sorry for this result," said the IOC letter.

Iraq is not the first country to miss an Olympics because of government interference.

In the most recent case, Afghanistan was prevented from sending a team to the Sydney Games in 2000 when the Taliban regime's heavy hand extended to sports.

The U.S. Olympic Committee also had a stake in the Iraq team, signing an agreement in 2006 to help with training for Beijing.

White House press secretary Dana Perino expressed disappointment.

"I'm sure that the Iraqi athletes who have trained so hard and were finally going to represent a country that is free and sovereign and working to establish its democracy, they have to be terribly disappointed, and I'm disappointed for the athletes as well," she said.

While many Iraqi officials rallied behind the government, the mood among fans was sour.

"The [IOC] decision will be a catastrophe for Iraqi sports," said Dia Hussein, coach of the Iraq Police Soccer team, which plays in the national league. "I blame the Iraqi government for bringing this on the country."

Yaroub Kadim, a 22-year-old university student, described sports as "one of the only real lifelines connecting everyone in the country."

There's a cruel irony in the suspicions that sectarian power plays may have sunk Iraq's Olympic hopes. Sports has become one of the few genuine sources of national unity since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

In July 2007, Iraqis erupted with joy when their national team -- the Lions of the Two Rivers -- won the Asia Cup. Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds poured into streets lined with blast walls to celebrate, shoot guns in the air and bask in a common Iraqi pride.

The soccer team was also hit by a ban by the sport's governing body, but was lifted in time for Iraq to compete in the World Cup qualifying tournament. Sports figures also have joined the long rolls of civilians killed in the war.

The Olympic cycling coach, national wrestling coach, a soccer federation member and a prominent volleyball player have been killed, most in 2006 during the height of sectarian slayings.


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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