Iraq’s ‘special athletes’ go for gold

Heba Asghar shows off her collection of medals. (AFP)
Updated 29 August 2018

Iraq’s ‘special athletes’ go for gold

  • Special Olympics World Games to take place in Abu Dhabi next year.
  • Little support for those with disabilities in Iraq.

With two gold medals to her name already, Iraqi badminton player Heba Asghar is more determined than ever as she prepares for next year’s Special Olympics for athletes with intellectual disabilities.
Still only aged 23 now, Asghar won a gold at the 2015 games in the United States as well as in Greece four years earlier.
And in March, Asghar, who has Down syndrome, will fly the Iraqi flag again at the Special Olympics World Games 2019 in Abu Dhabi.
Flicking through magazines featuring her daughter’s feats, Asghar’s mother, Souad, said that sport had marked a turning point.
“She was never stable, she was aggressive with family members,” she said, at their Baghdad home.
Then at the age of 10, Asghar started playing table tennis, winning a silver medal at the Special Olympics in Japan, before finding her niche in badminton.
“She worked hard and thanks to that, she overcame her disability, she became a champion and that made her proud,” her mother said.
Her 2015 gold medal victory at the Los Angeles summer Special Olympics earned her a monthly $600 (514-euro) grant from the Iraqi Ministry of Youth and Sports.
Smiling next to a table covered in her awards and newspaper clippings of her achievements, she dreams of more medals to come.

At a sports hall for disabled athletes in the Iraqi capital, 17-year-old Dhai Wadi is also preparing for the March 2019 tournament in Abu Dhabi.
At the last regional Special Olympics in March this year, held in the United Arab Emirates capital too, Dhai, who also has Down syndrome, won gold in the 25-meter sprint and silver in the 50 meters.
“When Dhai started three years ago, she did swimming, but finally she found herself in the sprint,” said her father, Ali.
“We hope she picks up the same medals in the World Games, and we will do everything to make her get there,” he said.
The 60-year-old has retired from the health sector and now looks after his daughter, who goes to a publicly funded school.
But, he said, “unlike most other countries where young people with mental disabilities are taken care of, nothing is provided for them (in Iraq), not even specialized vehicles to take them to training.”
Asghar’s father, also aged 60, said years of conflict and the country’s attempts at rebuilding had squeezed public funds and left the disabled with scant financial support.
There are no official figures for the number of people with Down syndrome in Iraq, and “no medicines are available” for the genetic disorder, said Salah Asghar.

Nevertheless, Iraqi athletes came home with a total of 52 medals at this year’s regional Special Olympics, which gathered competitors from 31 nations.
As well as badminton, Iraqi competitors also won medals in swimming, basketball, athletics and bocce, a game similar to bowls.
Essam Al-Khafaji, who set up the Iraqi team, said the athletes were “determined to learn and to go beyond their disability.”
After regular training, “they grow more independent,” said Khafaji.
On all the walls of the sports center where the athletes train, the team’s slogan reads: “Let me win, and if I don’t, let me show my courage in trying.”
Among those training for the Special Olympics is Ali, a 24-year-old also living in Baghdad who has twice undergone heart surgery.
At the last regional Special games in March, he won a gold medal in bocce.
Now, with a smile permanently on his face even if he has difficulty in expressing himself, Ali is aiming for more success at the 2019 Special Olympics, at which some 7,000 athletes from 177 countries are to compete in 24 disciplines.
Hussein Ali, 20, who won a gold in athletics in Abu Dhabi, is proud of his achievement. “My mother and my father helped me become a champion,” he said.

However, despite the impressive haul of medals, the greatest challenge for the champions, like other mentally disabled people in Iraq, often remains at home and in everyday life.
“There are people who help young people with mental disabilities and support them, but unfortunately in Iraqi society there are also those who don’t understand,” Asghar’s mother told AFP.
Studies show that a large majority of Iraqis are opposed to children with Down syndrome attending public schools.
“Often, when we go out with Heba, people move out of her way as if they’re afraid. So she asks me, a bit naively, ‘Why do they do that?’” said Souad.
“Sometimes she cries, but I say to her: ‘You are better than them, you are a champion.’“

Former UEFA head Platini detained in Qatar World Cup probe

Updated 2 min 27 sec ago

Former UEFA head Platini detained in Qatar World Cup probe

PARIS: Michel Platini, the former head of European football association UEFA, was detained for questioning by French police on Tuesday over the awarding of the 2022 World Cup football tournament to Qatar, a judicial source told Reuters.

Platini’s lawyer, William Bourdon, said his client was innocent of all charges. The detention of the former football star was first reported by French investigative website Mediapart.

France’s national financial prosecutor’s office, which specializes in investigating economic crimes and corruption, has been leading a probe into the awarding of the 2022 tournament to the Gulf emirate since 2016.

It is looking into possible offenses including private corruption, conspiracy and influence peddling.

UEFA declined to comment, while officials with Qatar’s organizing committee could not immediately be reached.

The decision in December 2010 to award the World Cup to Qatar surprised many given the lack of potential local audiences for the games, the extremely hot summer weather, and the poor performance of the country’s national squad. It will be the first Arab state to host the competition.

Le Monde newspaper reported that prosecutors were particularly looking into a lunch hosted by France’s then president, Nicolas Sarkozy, nine days before the vote that awarded the cup to Qatar. Platini and Sheikh Tamim Ben Hamad Al Thani, who was Qatar’s prime minister and is now the country’s emir, were guests at the lunch.

Platini has since acknowledged that he supported Qatar over a rival bid from the United States in the vote, but said Sarkozy “never asked him to,” the newspaper said.

Two of Sarkozy’s aides at that time, then Elysee secretary general Claude Gueant and Sarkozy’s adviser for sports Sophie Dion, were also questioned by police on Tuesday, judicial sources confirmed to Reuters. Dion remains detained with Platini. Gueant is a “free suspect,” the source said.

The lawyer for Gueant, who later became interior minister, was not immediately available for comment. A spokeswoman for Sarkozy declined to comment. A lawyer for Dion could not immediately be reached for comment.

Under French law, suspects can be held for questioning for up to 48 hours.

Platini was forced to leave his job as UEFA chief after he was investigated in another case over 1.8 million Swiss francs ($1.8 million) that he received from FIFA, the world governing body of football, in 2011. He was cleared in that case.

As a player in the 1970s and 1980s, Platini was a prolific striker, mainly for Saint-Etienne in France and Juventus in Italy. He played in three world cups, captaining the national squad to the semifinals in both 1982 and 1986.