Mohammed Madouh sat alone in the dark in the living room of the family house in the wee hours of Saturday morning in Kuwait, six time zones east of Rio de Janeiro, the only light beaming from the television. He wore Kuwait swimming shorts as he watched the Olympic Opening Ceremonies. He felt wavelets of sorrow and anger.
He went to work Sunday, the first day of the Middle East work week, in a windowless office with white walls, amid seven desks, four empty. He researched “a glass window used in aircraft manufacturing” for the Department of Air Transport Management of Kuwait’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation. With his master’s degree in Strategic Public Relations, he aimed to write a description accessible to the general public. Colleagues talked on the phone, read the news.
“There’s nothing really going on,” he texted.
As the Olympic swim meet churned on in probably the world’s most vivid nation, Madouh forged through relative tedium with a bale of emotions. At least he knows how to haul them around by now. Since October, Kuwait has been banned from international competition because of a select International Olympic Committee no-no: government legislation allowing interference in national sport federations. Thus did forces many tiers beyond Madouh’s control come to negate his realistic Rio daydreams.
Thus did the world prove again that when politics butts into Olympics, the ultimate pain visits the athletes. “Everything got obscured now. And nothing can be imagined the same now,” said Madouh, 29, a graduate of Arizona State University. “When you have the suspension, all your dreams and visions and scenes are just clouded and dark.”
Athletes who have suffered past bans or boycotts might have spotted themselves in the unmistakable sadness in Madouh’s brown eyes during an interview in Dubai in May — or in the low-key anguish that laced his sentences. They probably would have known empathy, not just sympathy, when he said, “It pinches all of your muscles in your body. . . . Your arms get heavier. You can’t even walk sometimes. You get nauseous. A little stomach upset. But then you get over it, day after day after day, until, like, you don’t feel anything anymore.”
And on Sunday, they would have nodded when he texted, “I keep remembering the amount of effort and the money spent into training.”
Just two Aprils ago, a spot in Rio de Janeiro did seem plausible. It would mark his second Olympics, eight years after he went to Beijing as the first qualifying swimmer from the smallish country of 2.7 million (and swam an exhilarated personal-best of 22.83 in the 50-meter freestyle). It would be nine years after he swam 23.01 in Indonesia in 2007 to qualify, got out of the pool, saw his mother in the stands, pointed to his time and cried, then went back to Arizona State and entered a meeting room where his teammates applauded.
It would be some culmination, and it certainly glimmered up ahead in April 2015 from Eindhoven, Netherlands, where he swam 23.42, 23.35 and 23.29, almost making the final. As noted the news release of his Dubai-based club, Hamilton Aquatics, “. . . he managed to creep ever closer to his Olympic cut.”
That would be 23.05, the time he would need to seal it.
“It was like, ‘That’s it. I’m going to make it,’” he said. “‘There’s no way I’m going to miss this. I’m going to finish my swimming career on an Olympic level. That’s it. Go home, find another job, live my life.’”
In feature article after feature article after he moved to Dubai to join Hamilton in 2013, Rio de Janeiro appeared as a dangling plausibility. Morning after morning, Madouh woke at 4:30, made fueling breakfasts such as turkey sandwiches. He learned to relish even the occasional booting from practice as helpful. In a regional culture in which pursuing pro sports can be rare, he pushed on through extended family members asking why, chose swimming over a possible marriage, drew strength from his own unusualness.
He also arrested a career dip that came between 2009 and 2013. On his trips home to Kuwait, his national-team mates would encourage him straightaway he was almost to Brazil. At the 2015 world championships in early August in Kazan, Russia, he swam 23.50, a non-travesty given it occurred during Ramadan and daily fasting.
He did spot rumblings of trouble in a newspaper in Dubai upon return from Kazan. By late October, the bans came but hope still flickered; the IOC had banned Kuwait for 2012 but lifted it in time for the Olympics in London that year. Come late winter, a potential resolution between Kuwait and the IOC failed, and the ban stayed. Come June, the Kuwaiti parliament amended somewhat the IOC-objectionable sports law, and the ban stayed. Kuwait sued the IOC for $1 billion. The IOC had said Kuwaiti athletes could compete under the Olympic flag. Messiness intensified.
Meanwhile, disallowed from competing in any international event since August 2015, and ransacked with worry, Madouh left the team Feb. 24, finding it “very sad” but reckoning, “I cannot interfere with them for recreational swimming. I cannot do that.” No longer would he get the push from teammates such as Velimir Stjepanovic, the Serb who finished sixth in the 200 butterfly at the London Olympics. At the Arab Championships in Dubai in April, Madouh had a poolside pass and a broken heart. He got questions about when he would swim — from swimmers unaware of the ban.
He stopped going after three days.
At the prospect of swimming under the Olympic flag, he balked: “The thing is, I made the Olympics because of Kuwait and because of the [swimming] federation, and all the funds came from the federation, so I’m very thankful for that.” Yet by May, that seemed moot anyway. He figured he would need three months of training to resume utmost shape. Stresses mounted. The end of his swimming would mean the end of his government-allowed “sports leave” in Dubai.
His mother, Roquiya, who first encouraged his swimming participation 19 years ago, told him by phone, “ ‘You need to prepare for a higher punch, and this punch is you actually making a decision of moving on from the sport of swimming.’” And the baroque, opaque struggle within Kuwait carried on between the government and the IOC and the various sports federations, so he said, “As an athlete, in my observation, all I’ve been seeing is [everyone] proving who’s wrong and who’s right, rather than just sit at a table and figure out what to do.”
Along the way to dawn on Saturday, he sat alone, everyone else asleep. It felt “horrible” at first and lousy “watching my friends walking through the Olympic ceremony raising their flags while ours was denied.” He did see the Kuwaiti swimmers Faye Sultan and Abbas Qali walk in under the Olympic flag, and did feel “proud to be part of their training life.” He tried to sleep, but frustration wouldn’t let him.
“And now,” he wrote, “all I am thinking about is doing whatever it takes to help to get our country reinstated so that the next generation does not suffer.”
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