Baghdad Outraged by Olympic Ban

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Yuri Kozyrev for TIME

Iraqi sprinter Dana Hussein's dream to compete in the Olympics is over after the IOC banned the Iraqi team from competing in Beijing.

Tempers flared among residents of Baghdad on Friday as word spread of Iraq's disqualification from the 2008 Summer Olympics. "I am really angry because this is an international competition and it should be legal for us to compete," says Bassam Ahmed, a shopkeeper in Iraq's capital. "It's very important for a country like Iraq. We would like others to see that Iraq can produce some good athletes, in spite of the situation we are in."

On Thursday, the International Olympic Committee informed Jassim Mohammed Jaafar, the Iraqi minister of sport and youth, in a letter, that it would uphold an earlier ban on the Iraqi Olympic team after the government unilaterally replaced the members of its national Olympic panel — the Iraqi affiliate of the international committee — two months ago. The move was taken by the IOC as corrupt conduct and it cited "political interference" as its reason for the ban. "We deeply regret this outcome which severely harms the Iraqi Olympic and Sports Movement and the Iraqi athletes but which is unfortunately imposed by the circumstances," read the letter. In May the Committee had given Iraq a negotiating window to present an argument for dissolving its national panel or remedy the situation, but said the government had failed to comply. (The speculation is that "political interference" is shorthand for what is believed to be the predominantly Shi'ite government's appointment of co-religionists to replace the mostly Sunni membership of the Iraqi Olympic committee.)

"From the legal point of view it's fair, but from the international point of view, it's not fair because no one understands the situation in Iraq," says Abu Haider, a Baghdad resident. Indeed, now into the sixth year of living with war, Iraqis may be justified in claiming their team should be granted special understanding due to difficult circumstances. But particularly infuriating is the timing of the ban; many argue that under Saddam Hussein, the sports atmosphere was no less corrupt, with Hussein's son Uday exercising an abusive grip on state sports. "Why didn't the International Olympic Committee intervene under the previous regime when Uday used to imprison and torture some of the players?" says Mithal al-Alloussi, a secular MP from the Umma party.

Iraqi sprinter Dana Hussein, 21, was already discouraged a month ago. "If you compare our situation with other countries, like the Asian countries, other athletes have already competed in 12 events. We're still in Baghdad," she told TIME, standing on the crushed 1980s asphalt where she trains. But having dodged bullets, curfews, and sectarian threats through five years of war, Hussein was not going to be stopped by training disadvantages and a lack of funding. She saw an overarching hope for helping to heal some of Iraq's bitter sectarian divides with this Olympics. "Sports can unify the Iraqi people — no Sunnis, no Shi'ites, just sport for the country," she says. But after learning the IOC's decision, Hussein was devastated. "With this horrible situation, who is to say I'll even be alive in 2012," she told CNN through tears, as her coach reminded her about the possibility of competing in the next Olympics.

The Iraqi team might still have a shot. IOC spokesperson Giselle Davies told CNN the Iraqi government would have one last chance, but only for about a week. "If there can be some movement and if a resolution can be found, that's still an open door," she said. The spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, Tahsin al-Sheikhli, in the meantime, said Iraqi sports unions would be filing a formal complaint against the IOC for its decision. "This was the only time that Iraqis would get to gather and bring the name of Iraq to a real international competition," says Abu Haider. "It would have been the only breath of air Iraqi athletes get."