|Sunday, December 22
Updated: December 23, 2:52 PM ET
'The public cannot imagine how brutal these guys are'
By Raed Ahmed
as told to Tom Farrey
Special to ESPN.com
Don't look at Bill Clinton.
That's the word that came down from Saddam Hussein's son Uday Hussein, conveyed by the head of the Iraqi Olympic delegation in Atlanta. As we entered the stadium during the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Games, our small delegation of three athletes and two administrators was under orders to show no respect to the country that we went to war with a few years earlier. We were ordered to ignore the American leader.
The moment left an impression on me. Before the end of the Atlanta Games, I would defect to the U.S. and apply for political asylum. While preparing to visit the zoo in Atlanta, I jumped in a car with a member of an exiled Iraqi opposition group, the start of a new life in a country far different from the one where I had come to be its top weightlifter.
Back home, my defection came as a big shock to Uday, who is president of the Iraqi National Olympic Committee. Iraqi television immediately reported that I had been sentenced to death in absentia, and that I was to be executed if I was apprehended. Uday ordered my wife to divorce me. My whole family -- my father, mother, sisters and brothers -- was rounded up at 3 a.m. in our hometown of Basra, in southern Iraq, and driven seven hours to the Olympic headquarters in Baghdad. They even interrogated my little sister, who was just 9 at the time.
My parents were transferred to the National Security headquarters and spent two weeks in prison. They were allowed to return to Basra, but they still cannot leave town without notifying the authorities. Some people encouraged me not to talk to the media because they want me to protect my family from retribution. But I'm willing to speak out about Saddam and Uday because the public cannot imagine how brutal these guys are.
Athletes around the world take steroids. But in Iraq, they take them for a different reason. They take them to avoid being tortured upon returning to Iraq. Before every international competition, we are interviewed by one of Uday's assistants and asked how we expect to fare. If, for example, you say you are going to finish in the top three, then
If you're from a poor family, where do you find the cash? Certainly not from the prize money or fees you earned as an athlete. Uday steals it, habitually. For participating in the Atlanta Olympics, each Iraqi athlete was supposed to receive $8,000 as a reward. The head of our delegation had the checks in his hands but told us he didn't have the authority to cash them because he was under orders to give the money to Uday.
I avoided problems with Uday by letting him think ahead of time I was hurt. I would get a doctor's note saying I suffered from a leg or shoulder injury, for example, and that I had no chance to win. That's what I did for Atlanta. That way, I could participate but wasn't forced to win. If traveling meant being forced to win, I would not go.
Other times, nothing more than good fortune kept from me being tortured. In 1990, I was unable to travel to the former Soviet Union for an Iraqi training camp because university exams were held at the same time. While there, some members of the team acquired steroids and tried to bring them back to Baghdad. Uday heard about it and had the whole 13-member delegation picked up at the airport. Their heads were shaven -- an embarrassing social punishment in Iraq -- and they were sent to the al-Radwaniya prison, where they were beaten for an entire month.
Uday is fine with athletes taking steroids. As long as it doesn't hurt his reputation.
This article was written with the help of ESPN.com senior writer Tom Farrey, who interviewed him in his new hometown. He requested that city not be disclosed, to avoid any potential harm from Iraqi agents.