Sometimes we are reminded that the Olympics can serve as an international platform not only for nationalism and truck commercials, but also resistance.
In an incredible piece by Grant Wahl on Sports Illustrated.com, the Iraqi Olympic Soccer team has issued a stinging rebuke to George W. Bush’s attempt to use them as election year symbols.
Iraq’s soccer squad is perhaps the surprise of the entire Olympics, advancing to this weekend’s quarterfinals despite the war and occupation that has gripped their country for the last 17 months. Yet amidst cheers and triumph, they were infuriated to learn that Bush’s brain, Karl Rove, had launched campaign ads featuring their Olympic glory as a brilliant by-product of the war on terror.
The commercial, subtle as a blowtorch, begins with an image of the Afghani and Iraqi flags with a voice over saying, “At this Olympics there will be two more free nations — and two fewer terrorist regimes.”
Bush has also been exploiting their exploits in stump speeches. Much more comfortable talking sports than foreign policy or stem-cell research, Bush brayed with bravado in Oregon, “The image of the Iraqi soccer team playing in this Olympics, it’s fantastic, isn’t it? It wouldn’t have been free if the United States had not acted.”
This has compelled the Iraqi soccer team, at great personal risk, to respond. Mid-fielder and team leader Salih Sadir told Sports Illustrated, “Iraq as a team does not want Mr. Bush to use us for the presidential campaign. He can find another way to advertise himself.”
Sadir has reason to be upset. He was the star player for the professional soccer team in Najaf. Najaf has in recent weeks been swamped by US troops and the new Iraqi army in an attempt to uproot rebel cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr. Thousands have died, each death close to Sadir’s heart.
“I want the violence and the war to go away from the city,” said Sadir, “We don’t wish for the presence of Americans in our country. We want them to go away.”
Sadir’s teammates were less diplomatic.
Midfielder Ahmed Manajid, told Wahl angrily, “How will [Bush] meet his god having slaughtered so many men and women? He has committed so many crimes.”
Manajid understands Sadir’s pain because he is from another Iraqi city that has been in a state of siege, Fallujah.
Manajid told Wahl that his cousin Omar Jabbar al-Aziz, who was a resistance fighter, was killed by the US, as were several of his friends. Manajid even said that if he were not playing soccer he would “for sure” be fighting as part of the resistance.
“I want to defend my home. If a stranger invades America and the people resist, does that mean they are terrorists? Everyone [in Fallujah] has been labeled a terrorist. These are all lies. Fallujah people are some of the best people in Iraq.”
Usually when there is political unrest on Olympic teams, the coach tries to be a mitigating force with the media. But not here and not now. Iraqi soccer coach Adnan Hamad also went public to Sports Illustrated saying, “My problems are not with the American people, They are with what America has done in Iraq: destroy everything. The American army has killed so many people in Iraq.”
To be clear, Iraq’s team is not pining for former Olympic head Uday Hussein, notorious for torturing athletes that under performed. Yet they don’t feel their choice has to be between Uday’s way and the bloodbath that has been visited upon their country. As Hamad said,” What is freedom when I go to the [national] stadium and there are shootings on the road?
The ideas expressed by the Iraqi soccer team are by all counts commonplace in Iraq yet find little expression in the mainstream media here at home. It is critical that their words find ears.
Without WMDs, Al-Qaeda connections, and with an Iraqi populace that overwhelmingly views the U.S. as occupiers and not liberators, what possible justification does Bush – and Kerry – have for supporting this invasion that has cost hundreds of billions of dollars and countless lives?
Take time this weekend to root for the Iraqi soccer team. Their ascent will accompany a platform for ideas that demand to be heard.
DAVE ZIRIN has a book coming out this Spring 2005, “What’s My Name Fool: Sports and Resistance in the United States (Haymarket Books). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.