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Iraq barred from Beijing games

- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2008

Iraq's Olympic athletes have been barred from the Beijing Summer Games next month after the International Olympic Committee on Thursday upheld a ban on the team's participation, citing political interference from the government in Baghdad.

A statement from the Switzerland-based IOC said Iraqi officials had failed to respond to concerns raised when the Iraqi squad was temporarily suspended in early June.

Olympic officials imposed the ban after the Iraqi ministry in charge of sports dissolved the country's national Olympic committee amid charges of corruption and installed its own slate of candidates. IOC rules forbid "political interference" in national Olympic organizations, which are supposed to be independent.

"Clearly we would very much like to have seen Iraq's athletes in Beijing," IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies told reporters in Switzerland. "We are very disappointed that the athletes have been so ill-served by their own government's actions."

Hussein al-Amidi, general secretary of the Iraqi Olympic Committee, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the IOC ban "is a blow to Iraq and to its international reputation, its athletes and its youth."

"I swear those athletes who have been training - they phoned me today and they were crying and were very upset," he added.

While Iraq's Olympic squad competed at the 2004 Athens Games, sports administration in Iraq has been caught up in some of the same murderous political and sectarian crossfire that has plagued the country since the 2003 U.S. invasion.

Former dictator Saddam Hussein and his eldest son, Uday, were notorious for pressuring Iraqi athletes to succeed, even torturing those who came up short.

After Saddam's ouster, a power struggle for control of the national Olympic committee was set off when Chairman Ahmad al-Samarra'i and several other members were kidnapped by gunmen during a meeting in Baghdad in July 2006. They are presumed dead.

"The issue has been politicized for a couple of years," said Rend Rahim Franke, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and former Iraqi envoy to Washington. "There has been a struggle over the independence of the committee, and it's not clear who is right."

There has also been tension between the Shi'ite-dominated Youth and Sports Ministry and the Olympic committee, which included a number of holdovers from the Sunni-dominated Saddam regime.

Seven Iraqi athletes - competing in archery, weightlifting, judo, rowing and track and field - had been expected to travel to China. The Olympic squad and the national soccer team are widely seen as two of the most potent unifying symbols in the country.

Other national teams have been barred from competing in the games, although typically larger political issues were involved.

Most recently, Afghanistan did not compete in the 2000 Sydney Games in part because the Taliban regime banned women athletes from its team.

Robert K. Barney, director emeritus of the International Center for Olympics Studies at the University of Western Ontario, said the Iraqi ban was "certainly out of the ordinary."

"Usually the IOC leans over backwards to accommodate the disenfranchised and disadvantaged countries," he said.

He said the IOC has often looked the other way over charges of political meddling.

"Governments are supposed to be at an arms' length from the sports, but they are not."

cTim Lemke and Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.