The Olympic Games are supposed to be about the relationship of muscles to morality, as Baron Pierre de Coubertin would say. "Physical exercise holds, in a certain manner, the fundamental basis for a means of ethical conduct," he wrote. Actually, more often than not the modern Olympics aren't about that at all, but about doping fraud, political infighting, and giving McDonald's and General Electric a foothold in China. But the Iraqi soccer team reminds us that the Olympics can still be good for something . . . good.
At their best, the Olympic Games are like taking a picture of the world as you'd like it to be. On Sunday, an ambitious and united Iraqi team embodied the reason we gather for the Games, and why they can still be a powerful instrument. As the Iraqis advanced to the Olympic quarterfinals with a 2-0 victory over Costa Rica at Karaiskaki Stadium, they seemed a balm for the problems of their occupied and war-fractured yet prideful country. This is what it means to be an Iraqi sportsman: Your successes are enveloped in sadness, and yet you have a deep craving for triumph.
Iraqi partisans made up the vast majority of the 12,183 in Karaiskaki Stadium, and they began lining up at the gates two hours before the game, sustaining a joyous constant chant of "Iraq, Iraq, Iraq." They passed out flags, shared mass hugs, shook beer bottles and sprayed themselves with foam. Provoked by an unpopular decision from the referee, they pelted the field with bottles, and generally had to be quelled every few minutes by stadium security, which seemed reluctant to ruin their good time.
With each of Iraq's two goals, hosts of fans vaulted the balustrades and rushed the field to tackle the players and kiss them on their faces.
"They have always been under a torturing dictatorship, they have been through wars, so this is a moment for them to be a little crazy," said Ahmed Samarrai, president of the Iraqi Olympic Committee, as he stood congratulating members of their delegation in the stadium tunnel after the game.
The Iraqis, crisp in their whites with green stripes against the soft green pitch, were a unified team of Shiites and Sunnis, and one Kurd, Hawar Mulla Mohammed, who was the hero of the night. He broke a scoreless tie in the 67th minute with a left-footed rocket, and then assisted on another goal in the 72nd minute, setting up Mahdi Karim for his header. Invariably, the Iraqis are asked to say what a soccer victory means to a team that a short time ago reportedly faced torture if it lost or angered Saddam Hussein's son, Uday, who ran the Olympic committee. But the members of the delegation were reluctant to look over their shoulder at horrors.
"Rather than dwell on the past they want to focus on opportunities in front of them," said their head coach, Adnan Hamad. "Our job is to help rebuild the country to what it can be."
The International Olympic Charter, an admittedly impracticable document, reads as follows. "The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play."
But the Olympic Games don't really represent a truce, as we learned once again, when an Iranian athlete reportedly refused to compete against an Israeli. Two-time world judo champion Arash Miresmaeili, the world judo champion in 2001 and 2003, carried the Iranian flag at Friday's Opening Ceremonies and was to meet Israel's Ehud Vaks in the first round. Iranian athletes have refused to compete against Israelis in previous competitions; Iran does not recognize Israel and bans any contact with the Jewish state. After Thursday's draw, the Iranian press agency IRNA quoted Miresmaeili as saying, "I refused to play against an Israeli rival to sympathize with the oppressed Palestinian people."
On Sunday after the weigh-in, however, spokesman Michel Brousse said the federation was told by the president of the Iranian judo delegation "the rumors were not true" that Miresmaeili refused to compete. However, Miresmaeili will not be in the competition after failing to make weight. The International Judo Federation is investigating.
The Olympic charter is an impossible goal and it's too much to expect of athletics to solve the seemingly intractable problems of Iraq. But the striving for it is the most important thing that will happen here during these two weeks. In the midst of broken streets, unthinkable suffering, and unrelenting suppression, Iraq has fashioned something beautiful, nonviolent and reconciled, a team of swift and elegant-footed young men. That's what we're all here for, and it's the only real reason to come to an Olympics. If Iraq can do this, then just maybe the seemingly endless fighting will end.
"Many people are fighting in many provinces," said Hussein Mohammed, head of the Iraqi soccer federation. "We sent a letter to stop the fighting, and stop the blood. We call on all Iraqis to respect this victory, and to respect this tournament, and to use it as a platform to ceasefire, and to be peaceful in what they are doing, and to come back from the brink."