BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Escaping the intense bloodletting during the height of Iraq’s sectarian warfare five years ago, Iraqi athlete Adnan Taess has since returned to a much calmer homeland to train for his first Olympics in London.
At the worst of the violence in 2006-2007, athletes dodged sniper bullets at the Jadriya oval track in the heart of Baghdad. Now, groups of athletes race each other as children watch, and older men lazily walk around the track that encircles an uneven grass field.
“As the country witnessed some stability, I was among the first of athletes to come back to Iraq and I was able to represent Iraq,” said the 31-year-old, who won a silver medal in the men’s 800 metres at the 2010 Asia Games in Guangzhou, China.
The problem facing Taess now is a lack of adequate training facilities in a country where sport has traditionally been seen as an afterthought in schools or associated with Saddam Hussein’s son Uday, who headed Iraq’s Olympic committee and reportedly tortured underperforming athletes.
Training in less than ideal conditions in a country still rebuilding after years of violence since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Taess had adjusted his aspirations for competing in the world’s most prestigious sporting event.
He hardly dares hope for a medal, but wants a chance to compete in the final eight.
“The Olympics ... is a big project which needs training camps, special fields, weight rooms and gymnastics halls so that we can train hard,” he said. “The support we have is not enough. We are missing lots of things like equipment for training.”
Taess, who trains three times a day in one of Baghdad’s two main tracks, said athletes were not able to get access to the special nutrition needed for competition and said the country’s planning was “insufficient” ahead of the Olympics.
“The athletes show good indications of being able to achieve medals but we don’t have enough support to continue on that level,” he said.
“In training you get injuries, you don’t have enough nutritional needs and post-training resting and massage techniques.”
Despite the lack of support, Taess said he would never consider competing at the Olympics under any flag but Iraq‘s.
He was critical of some Arab Gulf countries, traditionally not known for their sporting prowess, who lure African athletes with plum salaries and state-of-the-art training facilities on condition they compete under an adoptive nationality.
“I cannot accept representing anyone but my own country,” Taess told Reuters before training at the track on the grounds of Baghdad University. He said he had turned down offers of citizenship from wealthy Qatar and Bahrain.
“It’s a big honour .... we’re constantly being made offers. But we represent our country. That shows our love for the country where we were brought up,” he said.
Taess said the naturalisation drive defeated the purpose of competing in regional championships.
“Qatar, Bahrain and the Emirates began to naturalise players from Kenya and Ethiopia and we face big problems from that,” said Taess.
“We compete in Asian and Arab championships and it’s as if they are world championships. When we stand at the startup line in Asia, there are the top eight athletes in the world.”
Competing against the top athletes was a good opportunity to rub shoulders with different personalities but “it’s hard to win a medal against the big stars” in regional games, Taess said.
Editing by Peter Rutherford