|Sunday, December 22
Updated: December 23, 2:52 PM ET
'Being a well-known athlete can get you killed'
By Issam Thamer al-Diwan
as told to Tom Farrey
Special to ESPN.com
I doubt there's any Olympic facility like it in the world.
The building that houses the Iraqi National Olympic Committee is on Palestine Avenue in Baghdad, protected by a wall and bulletproof glass at each entrance. When I walked its marble hallways a decade ago, the Olympic flag flew out front, displaying the logo that represents the noble, humanitarian mission of the Games. But those famed rings merely were there to cover up crime, to lend credibility where there is none.
The basement was reserved for Uday's cars -- hundreds of expensive, European cars that he loved to drive at high speeds around Baghdad. On the first floor, behind a 300-seat meeting room, was a secret jail where he placed athletes, journalists, even friends, and others he wanted to punish. It was Uday's private prison, with 10 to 15 small, individual cells.
The second floor consisted of offices for what Iraqis call al-Fidaiyyin, "Saddam's Revolutionary Fighters," a government security apparatus under Uday's supervision that was created to protect his father. Uday's bodyguards stayed on the second floor, as well.
The third floor was for Uday's public relations, financial and computer staff. The fourth floor was for Uday's office and secretary. The fifth floor was home to staff of the al-Ba'ath sports newspaper that he controls. The sixth floor once belonged to the sport federations -- until he moved them and all other Olympic functions to another building. The seventh floor was for Uday's leisure. His parties. His women.
This is the Iraqi Olympic Committee!
I didn't feel like a sports person or coach, to be honest with you. As a former member of the Iraqi national team and briefly its coach, I made sure to do my work correctly to serve my country. But Uday filled the executive board with the bodyguards whose job it was to protect him and Saddam, and they directly managed the Olympic committee. You felt like you were in a military institution. We were afraid of everybody there.
Being a well-known athlete can get you killed. Dozens of athletes and leaders in the Iraqi sports movement have been executed, in part because they were popular with the public. Many of them were framed under the pretext of political reasons -- you need only to criticize the government -- but the fact is Uday cannot stand to think that someone in Iraq could be smarter or more famous than him.
Gen. Faleh Akram Fahmi, may he rest in peace, was the son of Akram Fahmi -- the man who established the Iraqi Olympic Committee. Once a track and field champion and captain of the Iraqi national basketball team, Faleh was well known throughout Asia and the Arab world. Uday had him executed in 1987 or '88 for supposedly cursing Saddam in front of a number of officers. This is how athletes are honored by Saddam and Uday.
Many of the executed athletes lost their lives following the 1991 uprising, when Iraqi citizens in the southern part of the country failed to oust Saddam after U.S.-led forces defeated his army in Kuwait. I also know of a popular weight lifter, Saleh Mahdi, who was driven to take his own life. He heard that security forces were coming to arrest him. He was afraid they were going to rape his wife in front of him to make him confess -- a normal practice in these situations. So he killed his wife, his children and himself, and left a taped message that many athletes know about in Iraq. He said, "You bunch of dogs will not take my honor!"
Perhaps death is better than being treated with no dignity.
I was imprisoned twice. The first time was in 1986 when I was still playing, after our Iraqi national team placed third in the Arab championships. Uday's bodyguards picked all 21 of us up at the airport in vehicles that looked like school buses, except they were green with tinted glass, and took us to a special prison at the old Presidential Palace, in the Karradat Maryam district. We were held together for about 10 to 14 days, in a room so small that all of us could not lie down at the same time. We slept in shifts.
After the delegation came back from Kuwait with its loot, a young man named Hilal al-Rawi met me outside Uday's office at the Iraqi Olympic Committee. He handed me a piece of paper the size of a cigarette pack and told me it was from Uday. The only thing written on it was my name, under which I could read, "Must be jailed."
I was sent back to the old Presidential Palace prison, where I was forced to stand in a cell in a painful position. My ankles were shackled to the wall, and my arms were tied together behind my back and raised high by a rope connected to the ceiling. I stood in this hunched position, with my head angled forward and leaning against the wall, for three days. I begged the guard to let me sit down, for my left knee was weak from an old volleyball injury. Instead, he just kicked me there.
A decade later, I am reminded daily of the abuse I endured. Two of the vertebrae in my neck are permanently damaged from my body staying in that position so long -- as you can tell from my hunched posture. Doctors say I need an artificial knee, but that, at age 45, I'm still 10 years too young to qualify. My ankles are bloated and scarred from the iron shackles, so I try not to stand for more than 15 minutes at a time. I take pills to relieve my aches and see psychiatrists to heal my mind, even today.
This is painful. This is painful and it hurts one's dignity.
We are people with feelings. And athletes who serve our country.
This is a humiliation.
This article was written with the help of ESPN.com senior writer Tom Farrey, who interviewed Thamer in November 2002.