They may specialize in different disciplines, but all of Iraq’s representatives to this year’s London Olympics know all too well the struggle of training in a country that is dangerous and still rebuilding.
Iraq’s Olympic team heads to Britain hoping to secure medals, an achievement that could help solidify what remains a fragile national identity.
However, poor infrastructure and difficulties in training mean their chances, pitted against better-equipped and better-trained athletes, look slim.
“Weapons and ammunition are all outdated — all of our equipment is old compared to other countries, Arab and European,” said Noor Aamer Jassim, who will be competing in air pistol shooting.
However, the 18-year-old is still hopeful.
“Sport is my life,” said the shy, headscarf-wearing youth who dreams of one day working full-time in the field. “I feel very proud to participate in the Olympics in London. I hope to win a medal, to see my country’s flag raised.”
The small team is comprised of two runners, a swimmer, an archer, a shooter, a boxer, a weightlifter and a wrestler.
Jassim is one of eight athletes — five men and three women — the youngest of whom is just 15 years old, heading to the Games, which begin in London on July 27.
Iraq has historically fared poorly at the Olympics. Its sole medal came during the 1960 Rome Games when Abdul Wahid Aziz won a bronze in men’s lightweight weightlifting.
The lack of success over the past decade has been put down to the dangerous security situation and poor sporting infrastructure, which mean athletes often have to train abroad or on make-shift sites.
Their nutrition and exercise programs pale in comparison to more developed sporting nations.
“We have at times experienced difficult situations when it comes to training,” said Adnan Taess, who runs the 800m. “Training requires a good atmosphere and a stable situation.”
“For now, we have to leave the country so that we can train properly,” the 32-year-old said.
Swimmer Mohanad Ahmed, 15, competing in the 100m butterfly, said most pools in Iraq fall short of international standards.
It is “very important for a swimmer to train in an Olympic-size pool, at a proper temperature,” he said.
In addition to the decades of conflict and sanctions that have plagued Iraq, athletes must also deal with scorching summer temperatures that regularly top 50°C.
“Iraqi sport is still in need of better infrastructure,” said Raad Hammoodi al-Dulaimi, president of Iraq’s Olympic Committee and a legendary goalkeeper of the national team. “But this is no excuse to not proceed with developing sport — the government has made lots of efforts to build sites.”
“Our goal is not about the results: We hope to win, but our sports program is still in its infancy. We must support all types of sport,” he said.
Dulaimi also hopes Iraq’s Olympians will help heal divisions in a society torn by a brutal sectarian war in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion that left tens of thousands dead, dividing neighborhoods and communities.
“Sport unites the people of Iraq; this is not the case with politicians,” he said.
He cited the example of Iraq’s soccer triumph in the 2007 Asian Cup, when the national team sparked jubilation at home, even at a time when the country was in the thick of its intercommunal bloodshed.
“When Iraq won the Asian Cup in 2007, the whole world saw that sport brought together politicians who were divided,” Dulaimi said. “Sport carries a message of peace and sets a good example when it comes to politics.”