Iraq’s Olympic Hopes: When Sports Mean More

The Olympic Games are just that, games–they can’t stop world hunger, find a cure for AIDS or put an end to war. But for a couple weeks they can make things seem a little brighter. This isn’t a new idea, it’s been reported on in the past and I’m sure it’ll be reported on in the future, but that doesn’t make it a tired topic.

Iraq has seen war, and little else, for the past six years. But come August 8, two Iraqi athletes may be just what the country needs to find a release from the hardships it faces.

Iraq is lucky to have any athletes competing in these summer games at all; in June the country’s national Olympic committee was suspended by the International Olympic Committee for what it called “political interference” by the Iraqi government. And with deadlines for the submission of athlete names for competition looming it seemed likely that no Iraqi athletes would be able to beat it.

In May of this year the country’s Olympic committee was dissolved by the national government amid accusations of corruption—meetings held without a quorum, officials elected to one-year terms serving for five years—and replaced by a government-appointed panel which the IOC promptly refused to recognize.

It has been speculated that the predominantly Shi’ite government disbanded the panel because it was mostly Sunni. None of those accusations have been substantiated.

The government defended the move by arguing that Iraq was not banned from the Olympics during the reign of Saddam Hussein despite the fact that he hand selected the country’s panel, and that a special exception should be made for Iraq right now because of the special circumstances surrounding it. The IOC disagreed.

In a race to beat the upcoming athlete submission deadlines, IOC officials held marathon meetings in Lausanne, Switzerland to make Olympic dreams a reality for Iraq’s athletes. Thankfully a resolution was reached.

Iraq has until the end of November to hold open and free elections–which will be under international observation–to elect a new national Olympic panel. In the meantime an interim panel appointed by the Iraq government and approved by the IOC will hold power.

Unfortunately, five Iraqi athletes will not be making the trip to Beijing—two rowers, an archer, a weightlifter, and a Judoka—who missed their submission deadline. But two track-and-field athletes—a sprinter and a discus thrower—will have the honor of representing their country—the track deadline was later than the others.

Neither athlete met qualifying standards for their event, but was granted admission under the IOC’s wild card program, designed to let every country be represented in the international games.

Although the country cut it a bit close, it’s a great sign that Iraqi officials were able to get this problem taken care of. In a time when reports of progress are made by the U.S. government, and met with mixed reactions, this is an actual progressive action originating from Iraq itself. The best part of this whole situation may be the fact that the Iraqi government solved this problem on its own—no matter how small it may be in the “big picture.”

It’s a sign of progress, it’s a small sign, and it deals with people playing games, but any sign should be celebrated at a time like this. This, on top of the Olympic Games themselves, should give Iraqis hope and it seems to be doing so.

In an article by TIME Magazine the Iraqi sprinter, Dana Hussein, was quoted as saying, “Sports can unify the Iraqi people—no Sunnis, no Shi’ites, just sport for the country.” She wants the Iraqi people to come together as a country above religious or political distinctions, and she just may have the power to help do that.

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