Road To The Olympic Games

Faisal Faisal: an Iraqi's quest

Iraqi skeleton athlete Faisal Faisal

By Randi Druzin

At home in Baghdad, Faisal Faisal looks at photos of his dead friend and remembers how spirited he was.

He recalls the young Maad throwing a rock at an empty school bus then running away with the furious driver in pursuit.

Faisal also remembers Iraqi law enforcement officials arresting Maad years later, just before the American-led invasion of Iraq, because he owned a satellite phone that could be used to communicate with enemy troops.

Faisal hesitates a moment then finishes the story.

"Maad was executed."

Though he remembers his childhood friend, Faisal refuses to dwell on his death, or on the circumstances surrounding it.

Instead, two years ago, Faisal chose to do something – for himself and for his battered country. He decided to become the first Iraqi to compete in the Winter Olympics, and he fought fiercely to achieve his goal.

Why did he embark on such an unusual journey?

"People can't even leave their homes right now," he says, days after a bomb blast shattered the glass windows of his parents' home.

"If I carried the Iraqi flag at the Winter Games, it would show that our country is part of the global community. It would be a bright moment at the darkest time in modern Iraqi history."

First taste of snow

Though he spent much of his childhood kicking around a soccer ball on Baghdad pitches and water skiing on the Tigris, Faisal was no stranger to snow when he took up skeleton two years ago.

In the '80s, he spent time in Wales, where his mother was studying architecture. It was in the United Kingdom that Faisal first caught a snowflake on his tongue.

A decade later, after he had moved to Australia to study business administration at Central Queensland University in Sydney, 17-year-old Faisal watched the opening ceremony of the 1998 Nagano Games. He waited for the Iraqi team to enter the stadium, and when it didn't he started planning his future as a Winter Olympian.

The Iraqi athlete, once a regional champion in the 200-metre sprint, took up alpine skiing and spent much time on the slopes of a resort seven hours from Sydney. When he failed to make progress on that front, he tried snowboarding. He hoped to qualify for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, but that proved too daunting and unrealistic.

He then tried speed skating but abandoned it when the international federation refused to certify him for the Olympics because Iraq didn't have an ice rink.

He considered ski jumping, but changed his mind when an official from one federation laughed in his face.

Faisal, determined to qualify for the 2006 Torino Olympics, finally turned to skeleton two years ago.

In January 2005, he spent four weeks training in Lake Placid, N.Y., at the invitation of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation. He discovered he enjoyed careering headfirst down an icy track.

"I was really nervous before my first run," he says. "It was pretty painful hitting the walls as I went down. Some people warned me that the sport might not be right for me but I liked it."

A federation official taught Faisal the basics but, beyond that, the Iraqi athlete was on his own. "I had to learn the technique on my own. I learned through repetition and from watching sliders," he recalls.

But Faisal knew better than to approach others sliders for help. "Other sliders will tell you a little, but not much. Each one is secretive about his technique," he explains. "In this sport, success is all about knowledge."

Parting the sea of red tape

Faisal's biggest challenge wasn't finding the perfect pair of spiked shoes or even convincing his parents to subsidize his quest. It was dealing with reams of red tape.

As 2005 drew to a close, most sliders were improving their push-times, Faisal was gnashing his teeth.

The 25-year-old athlete couldn't compete because the National Olympic Committee of Iraq (NOCI) wasn't affiliated with skeleton's international governing body (FIBT), as required. He also didn't have a visa to enter Germany, where a key Olympic qualifier was about to be held.

While waiting for the two sports bodies to become affiliated, Faisal attempted to obtain the visa. He met officials at the German consulate in Sydney. He gave them the information they requested only to have them approach him later, asking for additional documentation, including proof of insurance coverage.

Finally, after Faisal had spent a month on the sidelines, the NOCI and the FIBT became affiliated and Faisal received his visa. He flew to Germany and competed the next day. If he had missed that event, he would have failed to compete in the number of competitions required for Olympic qualification.

Unfamiliar with the track, he finished 57th out of 68 sliders. He was disappointed with his race but heartened by another experience in Germany.

"I found a refugee camp right next to the track and it has about 20 Iraqis," Faisal wrote on an online forum. "They have been very supportive and proud of what I am doing. They say [it will be] a dream come true for them to see the Iraqi flag up at this track during my next race."

Faisal was frustrated with Iraqi officials, but his criticism was tempered by empathy.

"Of course, it's tricky at home because the situation isn't so easy," he said three weeks before 10,000 Iraqis took to the streets of Baghdad alleging fraud in the parliamentary elections. "Iraqi Olympic committee officials risk being assassinated just by going to work in the morning."

In the end, Faisal was able to meet some of the Olympic qualification criteria but not all. He competed in five races on three different tracks over two seasons, but he wasn't able to get the result he needed – finishing among the top eight competitors in January's Challenge Cup. He was ranked ninth at one point but had a disappointing final run in the snow and fell out of contention.

Soon after, Iraqi sports officials asked the International Olympic Committee to grant Faisal a wildcard entry, mindful that the IOC had granted several Iraqis special slots for the Athens Games. The IOC turned down the request.

"I feel empty inside, especially the way things went at the end," Faisal says on the phone from Baghdad, briefly turning from the receiver to speak to his father in Arabic. "I'm almost burnt out because I gave it everything I had.

"If you came to Baghdad you would see that things aren't very encouraging. The streets look different. My friends look different – much older than they actually are. They don't have much hope. It's very sad.

"Competing in the Winter Games would have been one way to help. But I'm not going to leave it there. In the future, I'll have something to do with this whole Olympic movement."