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Olympic dreams instead of nightmares

Iraqi teams no longer endure poor treatment, and athletes will go to the Games.

Published May 30, 2004

Jamal Hasson thought he knew what losing felt like. But three years ago, he learned how wrong he was inside an ominous, nine-floor building in Baghdad, headquarters of the Iraqi Olympic Committee.

This is where the real pain from a defeat began.

The Iraqi wrestling coach had just returned from the 2001 Arab Championships in Syria, where his team had lost by a point in both the Greco-Roman and freestyle events, and one of his athletes had defected.

Hasson was in his Baghdad home, where he lives with his wife and five children, when the call came.

The voice on the line belonged to an official from the Olympic Committee. Hasson knew this was not good. The committee was run by Saddam Hussein's oldest son, Uday, who had turned the country's national sports programs into his own personal playground for intimidation, corruption and brutality.

Hasson was to report immediately to committee headquarters along with 30 other wrestlers and team officials. Once there, they faced the wrath of the man nicknamed "The Butcher's Boy." They were immediately imprisoned: jammed in dark, cramped jail cells and torture rooms that filled the building's basement.

Showers were banned, meals doled out only twice a day. But the worst part was Uday's special militia members, dressed in all black. Their job was to interrogate and abuse the wrestlers.

"We were afraid for our lives," says Hasson, speaking by phone to the Times recently through a translator. "They beat us with sticks and also used electric shock. But this is something I can talk about because it's a reality. It happened."

After 35 days, Hasson and his fellow wrestlers suddenly were released. "The investigation was over," he says. The outcome: top-ranking Iraqi Olympic officials were fired, and half the wrestling team quit out of fear of what another loss could mean.

But Hasson, 45, stuck with the sport. And though his home was damaged in the U.S. and British invasion of Baghdad in 2003, though his CD store was destroyed in the riotous aftermath, Hasson continued to oversee practices in barebone conditions and hold the wrestling team together.

The payoff could be a big one.

Early last month, Hasson was invited to the United States Olympic Committee headquarters in Colorado Springs. He brought along two Iraqi Greco-Roman wrestlers, Ali Salman and Muhammed Mohammed -- neither of whom underwent the torture experienced by their coach -- to begin intensive training with the U.S. wrestling team.

Their hope: to become a wild-card wrestling entry at the Athens Olympics in August. To ensure Iraq's participation in 2004, the International Olympic Committee has chosen a wild-card athlete for boxing, track and field, weightlifting, swimming and tae kwon do, with wrestling's status to be decided soon.

Iraq's soccer team made the Olympic cut on its own after defeating Saudi Arabia 3-1 and watching rivals Kuwait and Oman play to a scoreless tie. In the streets of Baghdad, so accustomed to war-zone gunfire, the moment was greeted by gunfire to celebrate.

All the Iraqi athletes share one thing in common: They can play for the love of the game, not in fear of what losing might mean.

Under Uday, the country had sent only four athletes to the Summer Olympics in 2000 (compared with 40 in 1980), and last May the IOC suspended Iraq amid reports of Uday's terrorizing reign.

But Uday and his brother Qusai were killed last July by U.S. troops, and the IOC lifted its suspension in February. Now, there is a new sports motto.

It was coined by the country's resurrected boxing team, under the tutelage of a native Texan, and displayed on T-shirts and hats at world competitions.

"Iraq is back."

* * *

The country's Olympic dreams are back, largely due to work by the Coalition Provisional Authority.

CPA Administrator Paul Bremer considered Iraq's return to the international sports stage of great symbolic importance to its citizens, and a tangible way to distract Iraqi youth from the dangers all around them. So he began pushing for an athletic rebirth a little more than a year ago.

The challenge was immense. Elections had to be held to create a new Olympic Committee, and convincing Iraqis that it was safe to vote and participate was no small hurdle.

Many training centers had been bombed out in the war, so new facilities had to be found. Since Iraq was too dangerous a place for foreign athletes, Iraqi athletes would have to travel outside the country for qualifying tournaments. But there were no funds to offset the formidable costs.

As a result, the CPA pumped $10-million into Iraq's amateur sports pursuits, and Bremer made sure another $3-million was earmarked for rebuilding Baghdad's soccer/track and field stadium.

Along the way, the remake of the program received help from an unlikely source: a Houston pest exterminator named Maurice "Termite" Watkins.

Watkins, 47, knows bugs, but he knows boxing even better. In 1974, he qualified for the U.S. boxing team, but he turned pro instead at 17. He finished his career with a 58-5-2 record, once fighting for the junior welterweight title, and retired to go into his family's extermination business.

After the U.S. Invasion of Iraq in 2003, a friend told Watkins that the Army needed pest exterminators on its bases. He wasn't actively working in the business anymore but still had his license. Several days later, it hit him: He wanted to do his part.

"I came home (to my wife) and said, "Honey, I'm going to Iraq, I feel almost like a calling,' " he says. "And she literally put her hand up to her ear and said, "I hear some calling, too, and they're saying that you're staying here. You don't have any business in Iraq.' "

But Watkins, speaking in a conference call last week, went anyway. And while he was killing bugs, word of Watkins' boxing expertise got out to a high-ranking CPA official, Michael Gfoeller.

"Mr. Gfoeller says, "Termite, what are the chances of you putting together a boxing team and getting somebody qualified for the Olympics?' I said, "Mr. Gfoeller, you got a slim-to-none chance, maybe a one in a million.' He goes, "Great, let's do it. All we need is one chance.' "

So Watkins accepted the challenge. He drove nearly 300 miles from Basra to Baghdad and saw a program in shambles. But the boxers had heart.

"The first time I went to see them, over half were barefoot," he says. "They actually boxed on a soccer field, and 24 of them paired up together ... They had no head gear, no mouthpieces, no groin protectors."

Watkins watched the athletes start fighting, but stopped them after about 30 seconds. The Iraqi coaches asked him why. "I said, "This is how we get teeth knocked out; this is how we get (hurt).' They said, "Well, this is how we do it every day.' And I go, "Well, we're going to make some changes.' "

Watkins found another training site and revamped the ring. He brought in boxing gloves, protective gear, and spent as much time as possible bonding with the team. The boxers shared stories of their experiences, their suffering. Watkins told them about himself and began his motivational pitch. He told them "it was their time, that it was Iraq's time to shine, that they'd been held back all this time. Win, lose or draw, they were going to become winners out of this opportunity."

All the while, he worked in a war zone, with bombs sometimes exploding nearby the workout facility. "If something would happen -- a bomb going off -- I'd be trying to climb under tables, but they're going, "Mr. Termite, it's okay. We take care of you,' " he says. "They are very mentally tough."

From the start, he encouraged them to have fun. Once, a boxer did a Muhammad Ali shuffle and thought Watkins would be angry. The coach laughed and told him to do it again. In less than two months he took the team to compete in the Philippines for an Olympic-qualifying tournament. None of his fighters won, but the team sent a message: It could compete.

Now, one of them will do so in the Olympics. Najah S. Ali, a 106-pound flyweight, has been selected by Watkins as a wild card and is currently in the United States training with his coach for the Titan Games June 18-20 in Atlanta.

Ali, 24, recently spent a week working out in Houston, where he impressed venerable trainer Kenny Weldon, who has trained many national champions. Weldon held hand pads as Ali practiced his punching. Later, he walked up to Watkins:

"He said, "Termite, do you realize this guy could win (a gold) in the Olympics?' and I said, "Yes, I do.' "

Watkins raves about Ali's elusiveness and his hard punching: "If we can get some good judges that give us fair decisions, I'm going to predict we'll win."

Ali, who learned English while studying computer science, deflected a question about the fear the boxing team once faced, but Watkins answered it.

"They get to fight out of the love of the sport now, where at one time they fought out of fear of Uday, of some of the things he would do to them," he says. "Some of these guys don't like to talk about that."

About how Uday shaved the heads of athletes to disgrace them if they didn't have a good performance, Watkins says. "They don't have to worry about getting killed or tortured or their families being tortured. So there's quite a (sense of) relief now."

Ali, whose father was a boxer, is already dreaming of the possibilities. "After I finish in Olympics, I'll go back to Iraq and I hope to give a medal to my country, because with this situation, my country needs to have a medal."

* * *

The last Olympic medal Iraq won was a bronze in weightlifting in 1960.

In an attempt to change his country's poor Olympic fortunes, Saddam Hussein placed Uday in charge of the national sports program in the mid '80s. Soon, stories of Uday's abuses became commonplace.

Uday was known for frequently having soccer players beaten and tortured for mistakes during games. He jailed the current captain of Iraq's soccer team, Basim Abbas, on several occasions. When Abbas missed a key goal in an Asian competition, according to the Guardian of London, Uday ordered him jailed again and banned him from the sport.

The country's wild-card tae kwon do entry, Raid Abbas Rashid, took up the sport as an outlet for his anger over the executions of his father, uncle and brother when he was a child. And though he escaped punishment under Uday's watch, his current coach, Ali Hussein Ajar, was banned from the sport in 1998 and jailed for earning a silver medal in the Arab championships. Ajar had won the gold two years before, so the silver was deemed a disgrace.

"They call you at your house," he told the Guardian, "and ask you to go to the jail. If you don't go, they take you and your family. So I went there on my own and spent three months in jail."

Meanwhile, the women's sports program was devastated by Uday's reputation for rape. Many female athletes abandoned their sports rather than risk making themselves a target. Recruiting female athletes remains a big problem in Iraq as a result and a priority for new Olympic Committee chairman Ahmed al-Samarrai, a former Iraqi basketball star who defected to England in 1983.

Iraq is sending only one female to the Olympics thus far, sprinter Al'aa Hikmet, who will compete in the 100 and 200 meters.

Despite the progress, Iraq's sports efforts still are clouded with danger. Security of the athletes remains a big issue. Sports Illustrated wrote recently of the February execution of an Iraqi official associated with the Olympic rebuilding program, operated from Saddam Hussein's one-time Republican Palace. Samarrai has received frequent death threats as well.

Even boxing coach Watkins needed bodyguards in Iraq. The wrestlers who trained recently in Colorado Springs, Salman, 21, and Mohammed, 27, talked of their concern for family members home in Iraq.

"How can I not be afraid or worried about my family?" Salman remarks via interpreter Jiyan Gozeh, who fled her native Iraq in the 1980s and teaches Arabic to U.S. soldiers in Colorado.

"My wife is proud of me, but she is also upset," adds Mohammed via Gozeh. "She wants me home."

All of them want the violence to end.

"We hope this will soon stop and hopefully all the American soldiers will return safely to their homes and Iraq will rule itself," says Hasson.

The contingent recently left the United States to compete overseas. Meanwhile, two new Iraqi wrestlers, Ahmed J. Jasim and Ahamad N. Weali, will take part in the Titan Games. The opportunities for Iraq athletes to train and compete in the U.S. has resulted from a multi-group collaboration: the IOC, the USOC, programs such as USA Boxing and USA Wrestling, the Department of State and other government agencies.

Before they left, Hasson, Salman and Mohammed made the most of their stay. They refined techniques, did some sightseeing (the highlight: Las Vegas), made American friends and experienced a new sensation: competing with no fear.

"There is no pressure now psychologically," Hasson says. "Now the athletes can do their best and play without looking back to see what they're going to face and what the punishment will be. And they will do their best, God willing."

-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

[Last modified May 29, 2004, 23:54:21]

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