In Iraq, legal dispute threatens chances at 2020 Olympics

Khalil Jalil
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Iraqi weightlifter Safaa Rashed Aljumaili lifts weights as he trains at a gym in the capital Baghdad

Iraqi weightlifter Safaa Rashed Aljumaili lifts weights as he trains at a gym in the capital Baghdad (AFP Photo/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)

Baghdad (AFP) - Day after day, Iraqi weightlifter Safaa Rashed Aljumaili hits a worn-down Baghdad gym to train for the 2020 Olympics. But despite all his grit, politics could keep him from competing.

The single air conditioning unit in the dilapidated facility is out of service, leaving Aljumaili to pump dumbbells and loaded bars with little relief from the crushing 45-degree heat of the Iraqi summer.

The gym's walls look like they could crumble at any moment -- much like the athlete's hopes.

"We don't know what to do anymore. I have to participate in six qualifier tournaments to get to Tokyo, but I've already missed two because of the problems in sport in this country," says the 29-year-old.

These "problems" are a spiralling dispute between the Iraqi Olympic Committee and the country's Ministry of Youth and Sports, a power struggle that has left aspiring Olympians without the necessary funds to train properly.

Iraq has competed in the Olympics since 1948, winning a single silver medal in the 1960 Games for weightlifting.

Under ex-dictator Saddam Hussein, the country's Olympic Committee was headed by his eldest son Uday, whose reputation for violence included the alleged torture of Iraqi footballers whom he deemed to have under-performed.

When the US-led invasion toppled Saddam in 2003, all government bodies -- including the committee -- were dissolved in favour of the coalition-run administration.

- Going for gold? -

Today's dispute stems from this moment.

Iraq's Ministry of Youth and Sport claims the committee's status was never re-established after 2003, so its finances should be managed by the ministry.

"We requested a commission take control of the Olympic Committee's finances until a new law can regulate its legal status," the ministry's legal expert Mohammed Hadi says.

Since February, that commission has been in control of the $25 million allocated to the Committee in the 2019 budget.

But the Olympic Committee points to its management of Iraqi teams at several Games since 2003 and the regular membership elections it has held -- without objection by the ministry.

For the athletes, the legal limbo has already cut off the monthly stipends they rely on to prepare for competitions.

"You need money to train, go to training camps abroad and qualify for the games," says Aljumaili, who draws from his meagre $400 salary to survive.

Dressed in his blue gi, judo athlete Ahmad Daoud runs laps around a sparse room to train for the 2020 Games, as Baghdad lacks a dojo specifically for the Olympics.

The 23-year-old athlete earns just $700 a month from the Al-Jaish Judo Club after losing the $400 stipend he received from the Olympic Committee.

With his revenues slashed, Daoud says it looks increasingly unlikely he'll be able to afford the six training sessions abroad he had planned to attend before the 2020 Games.

"We don't know if we can continue training," he says.

"Everything depends on money, and we haven't received a thing because of this dispute, whose victims are the athletes themselves," says Daoud.

- 'Where's the money?' -

Committee Treasurer Sarmad Abdulilah says the ministerial commission is already overstepping its bounds.

"The government's monitoring of the Olympic Committee's expenditures is normal, but the ministry's monitoring of the athletic federations' work is unacceptable," he says.

Those federations, indeed, are fuming.

They have already accused the ministry of embezzlement, an all-too-common refrain in the world's 12th most corrupt country, according to Transparency International.

Mustafa Saleh, head of the Iraqi Weightlifting Federation, says the ministry promised his athletes huge sums after the 2018 Asia Championships in Jakarta.

"It pledged endowments of $25,000 to Safaa Aljumaili and $17,000 to Salwan Jassem Abboud, who snagged a silver medal for heavyweights, plus the same amount for the federation," says Saleh.

"We never received anything. Where's the money?"

And the timing, just a year before the Games get underway, couldn't be worse.

"As time goes by, our chances of getting to Tokyo -- and of getting any medals in the next Olympic games -- are gradually slipping away," says Saleh.