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Against the Odds, Team Iraq Won Gold

July 31, 2012

It takes determination to send a team of athletes from Iraq across the world to the Special Olympics World Games. It also takes some help from the neighbors – in this case, the nearby nation of United Arab Emirates. That’s where Team Iraq was sent to train for World Games competition, away from the fighting and the fear of fighting.

Football players from Iraq celebrate a gold medal win.

Hurrah! Football players from Iraq celebrate a gold medal win.

Training In a Neighboring Land

Though the athletes on Iraq’s five-aside soccer team were eager to compete, their sports training had fallen behind. That’s because there were no safe places for them to practice in Iraq.

 But during 15 days of intense training in the UAE, Iraq’s team captain, Odai Kazem, could see how well they were playing. “During the training camp, we played some friendly games and surprisingly our competitors predicted we would win a medal,” said Odai. But at the World Summer Games in Shanghai, China, the Iraqi teams found some really tough competition.

A Special Olympics athlete from Iraq kisses his gold medal

Joy. It was a memorable moment to win the gold medal for football.

Competition Was Strong

Odai says, “At the Games, we were stunned by the high level performance of our opponents and most of the participating teams. It was tough facing them, as we felt there was no comparison; they were far ahead of us with their high level performance and body fitness.”  

These athletes from Iraq – where people with intellectual disabilities face a wide range of struggles and prejudice – did not give up. In fact, they went on to win the gold medal in their event. Odai gives full credit to the “perfect strategy” of their coach, Aly Shaker. He says the coach “was the one behind the achievement.”

Odai also describes the importance of perseverance in his team’s “distinguished performance.” He says: “We were always ready to face our opponents, never underestimated them and played with confidence.” That turned out to be a winning combination.

Leaving A Mark on World Games

Many Special Olympics athletes live in war-torn countries, yet are determined to find ways to compete and to achieve. It’s a process that can bring people together , including organizers and volunteers and family members – all united behind the goal of helping athletes with ID find new ways to achieve and show the world their gifts and talents.

 “Despite the modest preparations before the Games, we were able to step onto the podium, claim the gold medal and leave our fingerprints on the World Games,” said Odai. “What we have achieved is a result of the technical and administrative effort from those who took us to the podium. They are the officials of the Iraqi program who have pushed us forward to the top by implementing and carrying out an effective strategy.”

In addition to the athletes who competed in five-aside men’s football, Iraq also sent athletes to compete in cycling, powerlifting, aquatics, and track and field events. Team Iraq also included female athletes with intellectual disabilities – who are often not given many opportunities to showcase their talents. In the quiet words of a teenage long jumper who had worked very hard for her success, “I am happy.”

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