x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Iraq sends mixed messages on IOC ban

The team was barred because the government had replaced the country's Olympic committee with its own appointees.

Iraqi rowing athletes Hamza Hussein (left) and Haider Nawzad, who have qualified for the Beijing Olympics, row in Tigris river in Baghdad, as they continue their training despite the decision of the International Olympic Committee to  suspend the membership of the Iraqi Olympic Committee.
Iraqi rowing athletes Hamza Hussein (left) and Haider Nawzad, who have qualified for the Beijing Olympics, row in Tigris river in Baghdad, as they continue their training despite the decision of the International Olympic Committee to suspend the membership of the Iraqi Olympic Committee.

BAGHDAD // Iraq's banned Olympic Committee has opened negotiations to try to regain its place in the Beijing Games after being shutout for political interference in Olympic affairs, a spokesman said yesterday. But a top sport official suggested Iraq was not willing to make the concessions demanded by the International Olympic Committee, which on Thursday upheld its ban imposed after Iraq's government replaced its national Olympic panel with members not recognised by the IOC.

The IOC said the move violated Olympic rules on government intervention - and noted that time is running out to try to salvage even a portion of the seven-member Olympic team for the games beginning Aug 8. Jazair al-Sahlani, the spokesman for the Iraqi Olympic committee, said "high-level" talks have begun with IOC envoys and international mediators from Germany and China. He declined to give further details, but predicted a deal was within reach.

"We still have the hope the Iraqi flag will fly at the opening ceremony in Beijing," he said. But Basil Abdul Mahdi, an adviser for to the government's Ministry of Youth and Sport, said there would be "no retreat" in the decision to replace the Olympic Committee. The government claimed the old panel was corrupt and lacked legitimacy because it was missing too many members - including four members of the committee, including its chief, who were kidnapped two years ago.

Their fates remain unknown. An IOC spokesman, Emmanuelle Moreau, said the deadline to finalise athletics competitors is Wednesday and Iraq could field a partial team if the government reverses its decision. That means two members of Iraq's Olympic team - a discus thrower and sprinter - could still make the games. The door, however, was closed to the others, said Ms Moreau, speaking from IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The rest of the Iraqi team included weightlifting, judo, archery and rowing. "We would like to see the Iraqi athletes compete in Beijing," said Ms. Moreau. "There is a slight opportunity for them provided the government stops interfering and reinstates the National Olympic Committee." She added: "The ball is in their court, really." The Iraqi decision and refusal to compromise has angered athletes and risks aggravating Iraq's sectarian rifts. The Youth and Sports Ministry is dominated by Shiites who also control the government.

Iraq's Olympic Committee had included several holdovers from the Saddam era. "I was training very hard to win and get medal in Beijing and hoist the Iraqi flag, but now my dreams had broken," said Swara Mohammed Berbal, a 26-year old weightlifter training in the northern city of Irbil. Iraq has only one medal - a bronze in weightlifting in 1960 - since its first appearance at the Summer Olympics in 1948.

Sarhang Abdul-Khalq, a member of the Olympic committee in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region, said the "government has cut off the head of sport in Iraq." *AP