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Iraq and a Hard Place

Caught between national and Olympic politics, Iraqi athletes won't compete

FOR THE originaladministrators of the Olympic Games, political squabbling between nations wasan all-too-familiar problem. On any given Sunday in ancient Greece, two or morecity-states were at war—if it wasn't the Athenians against the Spartans, thenit was the Corinthians against the Thebans or the Macedonians against theThracians. So the organizers of the quadrennial contest devised the notion ofthe Olympic Truce: Fighting would cease during the Games, and athletes would begranted safe passage through war zones.

Some modernscholars are skeptical that Greek armies really put aside their swords andshields for a sporting contest they couldn't even watch on NBC, but if theOlympic Truce is a myth, it is one worth emulating. The International OlympicCommittee never wastes an opportunity to trumpet it as an Olympic ideal; theIOC even persuaded the U.N. to formally endorse this noble notion.

So it isespecially shameful that the IOC is itself one of the combatants in theconflict preventing Iraq's athletes from participating in the Beijing Olympics.Last week the IOC banned Iraq from the Games, citing rules against politicalinterference in Olympic sports. In May the government of Prime Minister Nourial-Maliki disbanded Iraq's National Olympic Committee (NOC), on the groundsthat it had failed to hold proper intraorganizational elections. The IOC gavethe Iraqis until this month to reinstate the committee. They refused.

This means thatIraq's two rowers, an archer, a weightlifter and a judoka will likely watch theGames on TV. (The deadline for entries has passed in all sports except trackand field; that deadline is July 31.) On Monday, in a last-ditch effort to getthe remaining two athletes into the Games—a discus thrower and a sprinter—anIraqi government delegation asked to meet with the IOC on Tuesday to discussreinstating the NOC.

Barring a deal,there will be no Iraqi flag at the opening ceremonies and no repeat of thejubilation that broke out from Basra to Baghdad to Erbil in 2004, when theIraqi soccer team stormed into the Olympic semifinals.

The soccer teamfailed to qualify for Beijing, but many Iraqis were looking forward tofollowing 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 merepresence in the Bird's Nest stadium would be a great victory. Dana only took uprunning after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and to qualify for the Gamesshe had to cope with both death threats and real bullets. She became a posterchild for sectarian harmony in a country still recovering from the savageShiite-Sunni bloodletting in 2006 and 2007. (Dana is Shiite, and her male coachis Sunni.) Just two weeks ago she was hoping to use her moment in the Olympiclimelight to broadcast a message to her countrymen. "Sports can unify theIraqi people: no Sunnis, no Shiites, just sport for the country," shesaid.

Alas, thesectarian hatred running through Iraqi politics has left its bloody mark onsport. Athletes and coaches have been murdered or maimed. In the summer of 2006the 18-member national taekwondo squad, made up mostly of Shiites, was killedby Sunni insurgents. In retaliation Shiite militias stormed theNOC—traditionally dominated by Sunnis—and kidnapped 30 officials, including theentire committee. Most were released, but the Sunni head of the committee andthree others are still missing, believed dead.

The members whosurvived 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 committeewas corrupt; committee members say the minister wants to install others fromhis 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. PrimeMinister Maliki is himself a Shiite partisan and has little to lose from theban: If his countrymen blame anybody, it will likely be the IOC.

The real surpriseis that the IOC has realized that there is political interference in Iraqisport. This is the same body that had no compunctions about dealing with theIraqi NOC when it was run by Saddam Hussein's psychopath son Uday—famous fortorturing athletes who failed to live up to his expectations. During his reignthe NOC's headquarters in Baghdad featured a basement prison and a torturechamber out of the Spanish Inquisition, complete with an iron maiden. Fordecades the IOC failed to adequately investigate reports of Uday's bestialtreatment of athletes. If this willful ignorance gave the IOC the cover ofplausible deniability—We didn't know he was a monster—it's harder to explainhow the committee failed to notice that Uday was only appointed head of the NOCbecause he was the dictator's son, the very definition of political meddling.Iraq was allowed to send teams to Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta (where the Iraqiflag bearer bolted from the Olympic village and sought asylum) and Sydney.

For the IOC todeny any athletes the chance to go to Beijing is beyond hypocrisy. The Iraqigovernment is hardly blameless; it certainly meddled with the NOC. But theIOC's going to war on behalf of the disbanded committee is scarcely in the bestinterests of Iraqi athletes either.

Both sides areshedding crocodile tears. "Our hearts go out to the Iraqi athletes,"says Bob Ctvrtlik, IOC member and VP of the USOC. "Under no stretch wasthis meant to harm the athletes. [But] we have to apply the same rules to all205 NOCs on an equal basis." And Basil Adel Mehdi, an adviser to the Iraqisports ministry, has denounced the ban as "a punishment against Iraqiathletes."

If the Iraqigovernment had cared for its would-be Olympians, it should have waited untilafter the Games to dissolve the committee. And if the IOC were fair-mindedabout allowing Iraqi athletes to go to Beijing, it should have invoked somevariation of the ancient Olympic Truce to defer the ban.

Bobby Ghosh,TIME's World Editor, was formerly the magazine's Baghdad bureau chief.

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There will be NO REPEAT OF THE JUBILATION the Iraqisoccer team brought its country in 2004.