For Iraqi and Afghan Olympians, victory is just being there
There is only one way that Afghanistan could hope to win a medal at this year's Olympics, and that is if buzkashi were one of the events.Skip to next paragraph
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But the galloping tribesmen's game of polo, played with a goat carcass instead of a ball, is not recognized by the International Olympic Committee. So Afghanistan has sent a more conventional team to Athens, comprising two sprinters, a boxer, a wrestler, and a judoka.
They are no-hopers in the medals race. But the dramatic successes of the Iraqi soccer squad have shown what sort of spirit the Games can arouse even in the most troubled teams, and they offer a happy reminder of what sports, and the Olympics, are meant to be about.
The Iraqi team's victories over Portugal and Costa Rica, taking them through to the quarterfinals, have allowed their strife-torn countrymen to imagine the apparently impossible - a medal. But simply being in Athens, taking part in the Games, is a triumph in itself for athletes who have dodged bullets, battled prejudice, and dreamed very hard to get here.
"On an individual level they have all faced difficult challenges getting to the start line," said Mark Clark, the British adviser to the Iraqi contingent, in Athens last week.
For all these athletes, sport has served a purpose beyond the thrill of victory. For Raed Rashid, an Iraqi tae kwon do champion, it helped him deal with the pain of his father's arrest by Saddam Hussein's police when he was 4 years old.
"Tae kwon do cooled my burning heart," he says. "I was upset and angry. They took my father from my house" - and Rashid never saw him again.
Friba Razayee, a 17-year-old Afghan judo competitor, sees sport as a path to wider change in her tradition-bound society. "Through sports women can gain their rights," she says.
Sport has a checkered history in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Hussein put his notoriously brutal son Uday in charge of all sports, and players were terrified of being tortured if they lost. In fact, a grim collection of torture instruments found in the basement of the Iraqi National Olympic Committee headquarters is now on display at Shaab stadium in Baghdad. Uday Hussein's leadership also put Iraqi women off high-level sports: They were afraid of being raped by the serial womanizer.
In Afghanistan, women were simply banned from taking part in sports under the Taliban government, and for a long time men were allowed to compete only in traditional flowing Afghan dress. The stadium in Kabul was used more often for public executions than for athletic meets.
Though Uday Hussein is now dead and the Taliban ousted from power, training to world-class level is still almost impossible for athletes in these countries - not least because of the shortage of money.
The Afghan authorities set aside just $1.87 million for sports this year. The US-led Coalition Provisional Authority that ran Iraq until last month was more generous, but the national soccer team had to play all its qualifying matches abroad because of the violence wracking their country. "We are beginning from nothing," says Hussein Saeed Mohammed, president of the Iraqi Football Association, although he points out that the team has had a successful past, including victory in the 2000 Asian under-19 championship.