Banished From Beijing

Saturday, July 26, 2008

WHEN IRAQ'S Olympic team paraded at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, the head of the country's Olympic Committee was Uday Hussein, the notoriously sadistic son of dictator Saddam Hussein. Uday made Baghdad's Olympic facilities the headquarters for his own epic feats of rape, torture and murder; among those he brutalized were athletes on the national team who failed to live up to his expectations. His may have been the foulest abuse of a national Olympic movement in history. Yet the International Olympic Committee found a way to live with Uday, just as it has tolerated the manipulations of sports teams by totalitarian governments around the world -- including this year's host, China.

Funny, then, that the IOC would have decided to ban Iraq's seven-member Olympic team from this year's Games -- a punishment that in recent decades has been imposed only on apartheid South Africa and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The reason cited by the Lausanne-based agency: "political interference in the Olympic movement," an offense that the IOC did not detect in Iraq when Saddam Hussein's son was in charge. As it happens, Iraq's 11-member Olympic committee contained several holdovers from the Hussein era up until this year; it had also been decimated by the 2006 kidnapping and disappearance of its chairman and three other members. Iraq's current government invited the IOC's wrath by dismissing the remaining committee members and appointing a new committee in May.

By the book, the IOC's international bureaucrats may be within their rights. The rules of the Olympic movement provide that a country may not replace its Olympic committee -- which in theory is independent of the government -- without consulting with the IOC. The Iraqi government's sports ministry acted on its own in disbanding the committee, and it was slow to respond to an IOC invitation to negotiate after an initial ruling against Iraq in June. Not surprisingly, the Shiite-led government appointed mostly Shiites to the new committee and resisted scolding from the agency that did business with Uday Hussein.

But the IOC isn't always so strict. In 2000, it allowed athletes from East Timor to participate in the Games even though the newly independent country didn't yet have an Olympic committee. Even now the IOC could come to terms with Iraq or at least allow its athletes to compete in Beijing as individuals. That it has chosen to crack down on the democratically elected government that replaced the Hussein regime -- while welcoming to Beijing Zimbabwe, Burma, Cuba, North Korea and Sudan, all of which it must consider innocent of any "political interference" in sport -- says a good deal more about the values of the international Olympic bureaucracy than it does about Iraq.

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