For Iraqis, the dream is just to compete

Iraqi rower Mohammed Riyadh Jasim training for the Olympics on the Tigris River. His French coach was unable to fly into Baghdad.
Iraqi rower Mohammed Riyadh Jasim training for the Olympics on the Tigris River. His French coach was unable to fly into Baghdad.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

TOKYO • For the four Iraqi athletes who have made it to Tokyo, there is no realistic talk of medals.

Having overcome war, politics and the coronavirus pandemic, their dream is simply to participate.

With state financial support cut off by political infighting for most of the run-up to the Olympics and their locked-down foreign coaches unable to offer more than virtual advice, Iraq's small squad of Olympians got there almost entirely by their own efforts.

Right up to November, when a new national Olympic chief was elected, Iraq's participation in the Games was in doubt.

A nearly two-year battle for control of the National Olympic Committee's US$25 million (S$34.1 million) budget had seen the country ostracised by the International Olympic Committee and its athletes deprived of the monthly stipends they rely on to prepare for competitions.

But despite the loss of financial support and the difficulties of travelling to qualifying events during the pandemic, a few Iraqi hopefuls managed to qualify for Tokyo.

Rower Mohammed Riyadh Jasim, 27, will take part in the men's single sculls for the second Games in a row.

He has no illusions about his medal chances after his French coach of the past nine years, Vincent Tassery, was prevented by travel restrictions from flying into Baghdad for the rower's training sessions on the Tigris River.

"I have a French trainer and because of Covid he hasn't been able to come to Iraq so he sends me instructions by e-mail that I have to work on by myself," Riyadh said.

"So the goal is just to take part in the Olympic Games. We both know it's not worth even thinking about a medal."

To date, Iraq has won just a single Olympic medal - bronze in weightlifting at the 1960 Rome Games - but it is not for want of trying. At the 2016 Rio Games, a total of 21 Iraqi athletes competed in an array of disciplines including football, judo, boxing and athletics as well as rowing.

But this year, just one other Iraqi apart from Riyadh qualified - sprinter Dana Hussein, 35, for the women's 200m, claiming her berth with a qualifying time of 22.51 seconds as she took gold in the pan-Arab athletics championship in Tunis last month.

Two other Iraqis were handed wildcard slots after coming close to their qualifying scores - 400m specialist Taha Hussein and shooter Fatima Abbas.

The quartet are Iraq's smallest squad of Olympians since the 1948 London Games, but they have largely made it to Tokyo by themselves. Little of the state funding filters down to help individual athletes cover the travel and training costs involved in qualifying.

"What's sad is that you go to these qualifying events and our authorities really don't care," Dana Hussein said.

"It's taken me 18 months of effort to book my place. I myself had to pay many of the costs of getting training abroad because the athletics federation has very limited means."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2021, with the headline 'For Iraqis, the dream is just to compete'. Subscribe