For Iraqi Rowers, Getting to Beijing Was a Victory in Itself

12rowers_6001.jpgThe Iraqi rowers Hussein Jebur, left, and Haidar Nozad are among the four athletes from their country at the Games. Three others were not allowed to compete.

Published: August 11, 2008
BEIJING — As their muscles burned and their searing lungs pleaded for them to stop, Haidar Nozad and Hussein Jebur rowed across the finish line at the Olympics on Monday, finishing last and nearly 30 seconds behind the winning Russian crew in their second-chance heat in double sculls.
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Haidar Nozad, left, and Hussein Jebur compete in the men’s double sculls Monday.
In the grueling sport of rowing, 30 seconds is a lifetime. But to Nozad and Jebur — who train on the Tigris River in war-torn Baghdad — the margin did not matter. Their time and place were secondary to the journey they took to get here.

“We feel so great and so happy that we are here because it is very important to the Iraqi people that we are competing,” Nozad said after his race, as sweat dripped from his chin onto his green uniform. “We want to show the good side of Iraq.”

Nozad, 25, and Jebur, 32, who squeezed in practices on the Tigris between military patrols, curfews and times when soldiers blocked them from their boathouse, are half of Iraq’s four-athlete Olympic team.

Their training had to remain flexible. At times, when violence was high in Baghdad, they were forced to stay indoors for three or four days and wait for the danger to disappear, Nozad said.

On the water, they were shooed back to shore by soldiers if officials from the Ministry of Defense were around. Forbidden to row downriver near government buildings, Nozad and Jebur said they often found themselves rowing in a most ridiculous manner: in tight circles.

They only had about 1,700 or 1,800 meters of river to use. The Olympic course is 2,000 meters long. Explosions often were the background noise, but they grew used to that.

Still, they said, they were the lucky ones.

Only four of seven would-be Olympic athletes from Iraq are in Beijing because of a dispute between Iraqi’s Olympic committee and the International Olympic Committee. That disagreement threatened Iraq’s chances of competing in the Games.12rowers1901.jpg

The I.O.C. suspended Iraq’s Olympic committee in June because the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki had disbanded the official Olympic committee. The government replaced it with a committee run by its minister of youth and sports.

I.O.C. rules say an Olympic committee must be elected and autonomous, so the group was suspended.

The deadline to file entries in every sport except track and field passed before the Iraqis and the I.O.C. resolved their differences. They did so in time for a sprinter and a discus thrower to be entered into the Olympics.

Nozad and Jebur were subsequently given entries because the international rowing federation had not yet given Iraq’s spots to another country.

“We had not slept in those days because we were so worried,” said Nozad, who speaks English (Jebur does not). “But here we are, and I am excited. For those problems, I blame no one.”

It takes a brave athlete to compete for Iraq these days, considering what has happened to some of their fellow sportsmen. More than 30 Iraqi athletes, coaches and officials have been the victims of violence, including the Olympic cycling coach Mahoud Ahmed Fulayih, who was killed in 2006.

More than a dozen members of the national tae kwon do team were found dead last year, after being kidnapped on a highway in Anbar province. Four of 11 members of their former national Olympic committee, including its president, were kidnapped two years ago and have not been heard from.

Years before, when Saddam Hussein was in power, his son Uday was in charge of the Olympic committee. He tortured athletes who underperformed. The sprinter Dana Hussein Abdul-Razzaq, who will compete in Beijing, trains on a mortar-scarred track at Baghdad University. She has been shot at by a sniper and targeted by car bombers. But she endures, she said, because a sporting event is the one place where it should not matter if one is Sunni or Shiite.

The perseverance of the Iraqi athletes has amazed some competitors here. Tyler Winklevoss, in the men’s pair for the United States rowing team, said he was moved by the Iraqi rowers.

“I think it’s fantastic to look at them and realize that there’s a universal quality in every Olympian and that’s overcoming challenges,” he said. “But some challenges are obviously much harder than others. Sometimes much, much harder.”

An archer, a judo player and a weight lifter on the Iraqi team were left home from the Olympics, left to dream about Beijing. There were no spots available in their sports when Iraqi and the I.O.C. finally ironed out their differences.

The judo player, Ali Muhammad Fakher, told the Xinhua news agency last month that he was optimistic about competing in Beijing. It was important to bring all nations and athletes together in peace, he said.

“In Iraq, only sport is clean; I mean free from any kind of hatred,” Fakher told the Xinhua news agency from Baghdad. “We athletes — Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and even Christians — train together like a family. All Iraqis, no matter how many problems between them, would finally have the feeling that they are Iraqis. So whoever would gain a medal, it would be a pride for all. That’s what we need: a common feeling.”

Hearing that, Nozad grew melancholy.

“It is a shame that we couldn’t compete together as a united country,” said Nozad, who will compete in a final on Wednesday that will determine the 13th and 14th spots in the men’s double. “So, we will compete for the ones who cannot be here. They will be rowing with us.”