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Iraq's absence means spirit of unity is missing, too

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TURIN, Italy-- --The athletes flooded the stadium in a pack, and you could see the flags poking above a sea of heads.

There was no real order. The closing ceremony at the Olympics is a celebration of unity. So you watched the flags and followed the country names on the JumboTron. Hungary ... Iceland ... India ... Iran ...

But wait. ... Ireland ... Israel ... Italy ... Wasn't one missing? ...

What happened to Iraq?

You laugh because these are the Winter Games, and Iraq sees about as much snow each year as my dining room. But believe me, the Iraqi flag should have flown here. As the Winter Games officially closed last night, the absence of one of the world's most troubled nations goes down as the International Olympic Committee's biggest blunder.

"It's important for us, for all the people in Iraq. Think about it. You look at Iraq; what do we make the news for? When are we making the news for something that we'd be proud of? We never seem to have anything positive to share with the world. This was our chance."

Those are the words of Faisal Faisal. The 25-year-old from Baghdad was sitting across from me in a cafe. He told me about his Olympic dream, about his country and about the pain he has been feeling like a power drill in his stomach.

Faisal is a skeleton slider. He nearly qualified for the Olympics. Then the IOC turned down his appeal for an exemption just one week before the Games started, which meant Iraq would not be represented in the Winter Olympics.

This is the same IOC that granted exemptions to an Iraqi boxer, a swimmer and two weightlifters at the Summer Games two years ago. I'm not sure what has changed in two years that made Faisal under-qualified for an exemption, but he was a lot more competitive in his discipline than some of those Summer Olympians before him.

Two-and-a-half weeks had passed since he received the rejection letter. Yet Faisal still arrived in Turin a couple of days ago. He wanted to meet the people who turned him down, who decided the Iraqi flag did not belong at these Games.

"I knew it would be like this," Faisal said. "But it still hurts very much to be here."

Two years ago, the world felt sympathy for Iraq. The country was rebuilding, its people recovering. Since then, somehow, the Olympic movement chose to pass Iraq right by.

You could easily make the argument that life in Baghdad is more difficult today than it was in 2004. Faisal says that not many long for Saddam Hussein and the old regime, but many think back on their daily lives with fondness. The "good old days," they call them.

Life today is filled with fear. Faisal lives just outside the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad. Just a few days ago, he was sitting in his living room, playing a soccer game on his PlayStation 2. He heard what sounded like a door slamming, and he told his cousin that he thought his father was home.

"No," his cousin said. "It's a bomb." Faisal didn't agree.

"Believe me," the cousin said. "It's a bomb."

The two chuckled, never pausing the game. A couple of days later, the windows of the house were blown out by a different blast.

A dream is born

All Faisal ever wanted was to give his countrymen something to be proud of. He was sitting in a Jordan airport four years ago, watching the Winter Olympics. It was the birth of a dream. When the plane touched down in Australia, where he was attending college, Faisal began researching what it would take to become an Olympian. He studied the alpine skiing requirements before he ever took a skiing lesson.

But coaches didn't want to help him. He looked into snowboarding but the criteria seemed too strict. He learned how to ice skate, with his sights set on short-track speed skating. He hung up his skates, though, when he found rules that said his country needed to have an established rink for at least five years. Iraq has never had a rink.

Ski-jumping coaches laughed him right off the phone, and Faisal finally stumbled upon skeleton, which appeared at the 2002 Games for the first time in more than 50 years. He seemed like a natural and learned quickly. He competed in Lake Placid, N.Y., and then in Germany, but just missed qualifying for the Turin Games.

Faisal knew about the Summer Olympians from his country and applied for a similar exemption into the Games. But the IOC wasn't passing any out this time, even though the skeleton field was one man short. To Faisal, it exemplified so much.

"It's a classic Iraqi story with sports," he said. "We always come close. In Athens, or our soccer team, or everything - we always get close but fall short. I hate that. We have to start being proud of real achievements."

On Saturday, Faisal visited with IOC officials. He didn't act upset, and he didn't make a scene. He politely and subtly reminded them what was missing from these Games.

When he left Iraq for Italy last week, everyone was talking about a civil war. His friends in Baghdad want him to abandon this silly dream and come home to work in business. An Iraqi in the Olympics is just not tangible to them, Faisal said.

"It will be hard for everyone to appreciate until it happens," he said. "But when they see it, when they see [the] flag there, they'll all know."

Faisal is a dreamer, and that's exactly what I like about him. He invested his life in these Olympics and he still hasn't recovered from the disappointment of that rejection letter. This is a guy who couldn't sleep for months because he was so anxious about qualifying. He never planned for the possibility that he wouldn't be competing here.

That's why now that he's in Turin, he avoided attending any of the events and gets noticeably sullen when you ask him about these Games.

Wake-up call?

Faisal is at a crossroads of sorts. A part of him is so crushed that he wants to abandon his dream completely. Maybe his friends are right? Don't we all get that way sometimes?

But I suspect that's only temporary. Too much of Faisal's heart is invested in a single image: that Iraqi flag marching alongside countless others in front of the entire world. Look, there's more to us than war and car bombs.

As he has sat at home and stewed recently, Faisal has had some fanciful ideas. He's very confident that he could qualify in skeleton for the Vancouver Games. But that's no longer enough. He knows the rulebooks very well and is talking again about alpine skiing.

That's right - two sports in 2010.

It might actually be easier for him qualify as a skier than in any other sport because, essentially, he'd only need to be the top athlete from his country and one of the top 500 in the world.

Red, white, black. Green stars in the middle. It's easy to imagine. We should have seen it on display at these Games.

Olympic officials espouse this doctrine of peace and an idealistic vision of unity. Most of us share those ideals. If the IOC was serious with its message, it wouldn't have excluded a nation from these Games that could have used the boost more than most others.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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