It was after midnight, and what lay ahead was a 14-hour ride
across the desert of western Iraq. Still, the passengers on the
decrepit bus were beaming. The Iraqi soccer team, fresh from a
4-0 victory over Oman in an Olympic qualifying round on March 3,
was headed home to Baghdad. ¬∂ During their match hours earlier in
Amman, Jordan, the Iraqis and Omanis had played a scoreless first
half in front of three dozen fans and 30,000 empty seats. Then,
after a spirited speech from coach Adnan Hamad about the chance
to represent their country in Athens, the Iraqis played the
second half as if their lives depended on it--which for the first
time in 20 years they didn't.
After two decades of intimidation by Saddam Hussein's eldest son,
Uday--who as chairman of Iraq's Olympic committee ordered the
torture of team members he considered underperformers--athletes
in Iraq are finally competing without fear. "This is all new for
us, and it's awesome," said the soccer team's star, Younis
Mahmood. "I looked forward to riding home tonight because I knew
that no matter how I played, I wasn't going to be punished. Now
we play for our country and ourselves. No one has to be concerned
about being called to Uday's office."
In that office, as reported a year ago in SI (March 24, 2003),
Uday served as judge, jury and even executioner of athletes. The
nine-story Olympic headquarters building in Baghdad had a 30-cell
torture chamber in the basement. There coalition troops found
Uday's notorious iron maiden--a sarcophaguslike device with
spikes that pierced the body of anyone put inside--and removed it
before looters gutted the building.
The Butcher's Boy, as Uday was known, ran the Olympic committee
from 1986 until he fled Baghdad last March. (He was killed four
months later in a gun battle with U.S. troops.) He used the
position to accumulate power and money. While he purchased
exotic cars, Iraqi athletes often trained without basic
equipment. "Uday knew the best way to be popular in Iraq was to
associate with athletes," says Tiras Odisho, director of
day-to-day operations for Iraq's newly elected Olympic
committee. "But he used the Olympic rings as a front for
corrupt things." Because of Uday's brutal treatment of athletes
and his misuse of sports funds, the International Olympic
Committee last May ejected Iraq, leaving it ineligible for the
Ten months later, the picture has changed dramatically. The IOC
last month welcomed back Iraq, and even though the nation
continues to be racked by terrorist bombings and other violence,
athletes in seven sports--boxing, soccer, swimming, taekwondo,
track and field, weightlifting and wrestling--are attempting to
qualify for Athens. Up to four Iraqi wrestlers have been invited
to train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
Aware that no Iraqi athlete might qualify, the IOC has set aside
wild-card entries to ensure that a total of at least six Iraqi
men and women will compete in Greece.
After assuming control of Iraq in April, the Coalition
Provisional Authority (CPA) made it a top priority to help the
country return to the Olympics. "Sports was high on our list
because of its symbolism, because of the change it represented
from the past," CPA administrator L. Paul Bremer told SI. "Those
who play are the future of this country. Developing a national
sports program is important for the pride of the Iraqi people.
This nation needs to have athletes walking under its flag in
The challenges facing the Iraqi Olympic Committee seem endless.
Stadiums and gyms are in disrepair. Because no foreign team will
go to Baghdad to compete, the Iraqi soccer squad is forced to
play its supposed home matches in neighboring Jordan. Then
there's the issue of money. Building an Olympic team under any
circumstances, let alone these, is expensive.
All this fell into the lap of Mounzer Fatfat, a Lebanese-American
human rights activist who came to Iraq as a member of Bremer's
staff after four years of working for the U.N. in war-torn
Kosovo. "I don't think any of us understood that to get back into
the Olympics, we had to start completely from scratch," says
Fatfat, now a senior adviser at Iraq's Ministry of Youth and
Sport. "There was almost nothing to work with. And we had to meet
Under those rules the Iraqis had to hold elections for the
Olympic committee and other sports bodies, starting at the club
level. The CPA decreed that no member of Saddam's Baath party
would be eligible to run or even vote. "Everything you need to
know about how important sports are in Iraq you can tell by how
the Baathists focused on sporting clubs [under Saddam]," Bremer
says. "They knew that if they controlled sports, they controlled
Odisho says sports have always been important in Iraq because
Iraqis have few other forms of recreation. Early in the
occupation several Iraqi nationals working with the CPA sent
Bremer a memo noting that "sports can offer the distraction that
will take youth off the streets.... We'd rather have them kicking
a soccer ball than hooking up with some terrorist group."
So in the late spring Bremer instructed Fatfat and his small
staff to get the process started. "We held 500 elections, from
the club level through to the selection in January [by sports
officials and club members] of the national Olympic committee,"
Fatfat says. "Remember, these were the first free elections in
Iraq in 35 years. One of our greatest challenges was explaining
how democracy works. We had to get people to understand that when
you lose an election, you don't grab a gun."
The voting filled the boards with Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and
Christians, groups that are squabbling over other aspects of
their nation's rebuilding--but not over sports. "Everyone, it
didn't matter where they came from or what faith they practiced,
rallied around the idea of rebuilding athletics," says Ahmed
Al-Samarrai, a Sunni who was chosen Olympic committee chairman.
"It was, from our perspective, a democratic success story."
Samarrai was once one of Iraq's most celebrated athletes. After
serving as captain of the national basketball team for 11 years,
he defected in 1983 and settled in London, where he made a small
fortune publishing Korans and Islamic history books. In early
2003, when coalition forces began assembling to invade Iraq,
Samarrai volunteered to serve as an adviser in northern Iraq.
Once it became clear that the IOC would accept a new Iraqi
Olympic Committee, Samarrai had to find athletes who could
compete in Athens without embarrassing their nation. It's not as
if Iraq's Olympic history is rich--the country has produced only
one medalist, weightlifter Abdul Wahid Aziz, who won bronze in
1960--but it performed respectably in boxing and weightlifting in
the late '70s and early '80s and sent a 46-athlete delegation to
the 1980 Moscow Games. After Saddam handed control of the
nation's sporting fortunes to Uday, Iraqi sports gradually
"Many young athletes who exhibited talent early weren't allowed
to play by their parents," says Mark Clark, a CPA employee
working with Fatfat. "There was a feeling that if you were too
good, you would end up on Uday's radar screen and be a candidate
for torture. So the first challenge we faced was getting athletes
to believe they could now play and lose and not worry about
paying some kind of price." The CPA's campaign has drawn dozens
of previously unknown athletes but few real hopefuls for Athens.
It has been particularly difficult to find talent in women's
sports. "In the early '80s we had many women who wanted to
participate," says Iman Hussein, a phys-ed professor who hasn't
run in 20 years yet still holds the national record for women at
400 and 800 meters. "But as Uday took control, women knew his
reputation for rape, and no one wanted to play. One day a few
years ago at a tennis club I heard a mother send her daughter
home because she heard Uday was coming through the door."
As a result, few Iraqi women compete at the international level.
The personal best of the leading 400-meter runner, 18-year-old
Rasha Yaseen, is nearly five seconds slower than the record set
by Iman Hussein in 1984. "I want very much to surpass Dr. Iman's
record," Yaseen says, "but I will need much help to get there. At
least now girls believe we can come out. I've seen more girls
running in the last few months than ever."
If Yaseen does break her record, Iman Hussein says, "it will be
one of the best days of my life. I want women to get back into
sports, to set new records and to become significant on the
international scene again. I remember the thrill of running [at a
meet] in Mexico City in 1980 and what that did for me. I want
that for young girls today."
All of this is not being accomplished without new fears, though.
Samarrai regularly gets death threats. Much of the athletic
rebuilding effort is housed at Saddam's old Republican Palace,
which is a frequent target of mortar fire. And one of Fatfat's
Iraqi employees, Ahmed Aoudeh, was killed execution-style in
Baghdad on Feb. 11.
"That was a low point for us," Fatfat says. "Because of the work
he did with us, [Aoudeh] became known in his neighborhood as
Ahmed the American. We need Iraqi nationals to work with us.
After Ahmed's murder, it put a question in some minds about
whether they could be next."
The road ahead for Fatfat and Samarrai would be much easier if
Iraq were infested with more Termites--men like Maurice (Termite)
Watkins, that is. Watkins, a onetime boxer who grew up working in
his family's pest-control business in the Houston area, was hired
by a U.S. contractor last year to exterminate insects at U.S.
Army bases in Iraq.
CPA officials heard that the 47-year-old Watkins was a former
fighter who had turned pro at 17, gone 58-5-2 in several weight
classes and even fought for the junior welterweight title in
1980. Knowing that the Iraqi boxing team was in the same state of
disrepair as its training facility in the capital, the CPA
challenged Watkins to build a team. He made the 280-mile trip
from Basra, where he was working, to the Baghdad training
facility. The ring was made of plywood, and the fighters trained
in whatever clothes they brought from home. The team hadn't
fought outside Iraq in more than two years, and some former
members had vanished.
"We got together the guys we could find, took them to a soccer
field and told them to start boxing, without headgear or
mouthpieces," Watkins says. "They just started duking it out, and
in less than a minute, blood was all over the place. I saw we had
a little talent and a lot of heart."
Watkins moved the team to Hilla, a town about 90 minutes south of
Baghdad, because he could get a better building there to train
in. But the streets of Hilla are so dangerous that the team's
grueling running program is confined to a small warehouse.
Twenty-four boxers made the trip to Hilla, and nine have dropped
out, leaving Watkins with too few fighters to spar in all 12
Olympic weight classes. Those who have stayed, Watkins says, have
started to learn the art of the sport. "Mr. Termite has taught us
so much," says Najah Salah, 24, a light flyweight. "He has taught
me not just to swing but to get points. He wants us to be proud
of our country. It makes me so happy when he walks through the
When he enters the Hilla training facility, Watkins chants at the
top of his lungs, "Iraq ... Iraq ... Iraq is back!" Before long,
every fighter, coach and trainer within earshot is jumping up and
down, chanting along. The slogan has been emblazoned on T-shirts,
hats and pins procured by the CPA for Watkins to give out as he
and the team travel through the country.
"We really are back," says middleweight Zuhair Khudhair. "We're
back to freedom, back to the world, back to living."