Iraqi Athletes Look to Brighter Days
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Two years ago, Iraqi wrestler Maitham Ali Hadi was competing in the Arab championships in Syria and defected. When the delegation returned home without him, its members were imprisoned and tortured.
The punishment _ which included wrestlers, coaches, journalists, even referees _ was a message to others who might have been thinking about defecting. Even the chairman and the secretary of the Wrestling Federation were imprisoned, though they weren’t in Syria during the tournament.
``At night, we used to hear the voices of our colleagues being tortured. We felt their pain alongside them,″ Loai Sateh, former head of the Wrestling Federation, said in a recent interview.
For years, they dared not say anything. But now that Saddam is gone, Iraqi athletes’ stories are starting to emerge. Many of them are ugly _ and, often, terrifying.
Athletes say ousted President Saddam Hussein’s eldest son Odai, who ran Iraq’s Olympic Committee and the Iraqi Football Federation, always liked to see them punished for performing badly. He was reported to have a special prison for athletes who offended him.
Even Ahmed Radi, Iraq’s best-known soccer player of recent years, was imprisoned three times on Odai’s orders. Radi, who played abroad for years, said he paid Odai’s Olympic Committee 40 percent of what he made.
Odai once decided to make a team of Iraq’s best players and call it al-Rasheed. When Radi, the only player to score a goal for his country during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, refused to play for the team, he was punished.
``He sent a car at midnight and took me to a remote area. They beat me up, and they said if I didn’t play for al-Rasheed, I would not play soccer for the rest of my life,″ Radi said. ``I accepted. Soccer was my only profession.″
Fakher Ali al-Jamali, who headed Iraq’s handicapped team, was whipped with electric cables for two days after two members of his team went missing during a 1998 tournament. He was released only after they showed up.
During Saddam’s rule, sports _ primarily soccer which is the country’s favorite _ were largely run not by experts but by people with close ties to Saddam’s regime. Organization was nonexistence, many say.
``Most of the employees did not know the rules of the Olympic committee because the majority among them were not athletes,″ said Ibrahim Jumaa, former secretary of the Wrestling Union. He was imprisoned twice.
One of the tools used by Odai to torture athletes is currently on display at al-Hikma Mosque in Baghdad. It is a 6 foot body suit of metal bars that was used to restrain offending athletes under the scorching sun for hours.
One athlete who spoke on condition of anonymity said he was placed in the suit for long hours under blistering sun. A hose dripped water into his mouth to prevent him from dying of dehydration.
``Whenever I tried to move my body, I would feel the burn of the metal rods,″ said the man, displaying scarred legs and hands.
In December, Indict, a London-based human rights group, lodged a complaint demanding the International Olympic Committee expel the Iraqi National Olympic Committee from its ranks. It cited witness statements by exiled Iraqi athletes and U.N. reports.
Hussein Saeed, assistant secretary-general of Iraq’s Olympic Committee, has said athletes should forget the past.
``We put this period behind us and say let bygones be bygones. Let us start a new direction,″ said Saeed, a former soccer player who was Odai’s deputy. Last week, days after speaking to a reporter, he was expelled from the committee.
But there is a new direction in Iraqi athletics. Sports federations have begun working again. The Iraqi Olympic Committee met last week and asked respected former soccer coach Amu Baba to meet top U.S. officials to ask for help with the future of the country’s sports program.
Last month, the U.S. Olympic Committee announced it wanted to help restore athletic programs in postwar Iraq with an eye toward the 2004 Olympics.
``We will explore how we can help Iraq train for Athens. We may open our facilities here to them or send coaches,″ said Bill Martin, acting president of the USOC.
Falah Mirza, former head of Iraq’s Boxing Federation, said every Iraqi athlete currently abroad should come back so the country can benefit from the experience. ``We are in bad need of such people,″ Mirza said.
On Tuesday, a simple soccer game is scheduled between two popular Iraqi teams, al-Zawra and Police. It will be the first professional match in Iraq since the war.
It will not wipe out the past, but should prove a first step toward the future.
``My dream is that sports in Iraq will be led by sincere people who are here to serve sports and not their personal interests,″ said Raad Hammoudi, the Iraqi national team’s captain in the 1980s. He left the country and returned after Saddam’s ouster to revive Iraqi sports.
``Sports in Iraq will be better than the past because people are liberated. We can now say what is right and what is wrong,″ he said. ``Now athletes will lead sports.″