Iraqi rower Rashid bids for Olympic qualification

By Matthew PinsentBBC News, Slovenia

Bled in Slovenia has the best memories for me. Before this year, the town last hosted the rowing World Championships in 1989 - my first proper international year.

It is just as stunning now as it was then - high wooded hills plunging down to the lakeside and a castle perched atop a hill near the start, balanced by a church on an island near the finish. It is simply the most beautiful rowing course in the world.

In 1989, it was a happy start to my career with a bronze medal (this was long before the years when minor medals would have counted as catastrophic).

But the fact that we were racing in Yugoslavia, against countries like East Germany and Czechoslovakia that also no longer exist, shows just how much the rowing world has changed.

Back then there was no qualification process for the Olympics whereas now the World Championships, with a year to go before the Games, are a chance to secure a London 2012 berth.

The Brits have qualified in 13 boat classes out of a possible 14. Other powerhouses are Canada, Australia, Germany and New Zealand.

Iraq is far from a rowing powerhouse. I travelled to Baghdad last winter to see the rowing centre on the banks of the Tigris and Haider Rashid in his training environment.

He and his then rowing partner Hamza Hussein were given a wildcard entry to the Beijing Olympics and finished last. But now Haider, on his own in a single scull, wants to qualify in his own right for the Games.

There are three routes available:

- Top 11 at these World Championships. This is a stiff test that some big rowing individuals might wince at. Haider has failed this, coming fifth in his heat and then a strong, but ultimately unsuccessful, third in his repechage.

- A last-ditch attempt through the final qualification regatta that is almost tougher than these Worlds, a year before. Haider may not opt for this option.

- Finally and most importantly for Haider there is the Asian qualifying regatta in April 2012 in Korea. Top six Asian scullers book their places to come to London.When you see what he has had to deal with in Iraq, he jumps from just an ordinary sportsman to something different.

But in order to get into the top six in Asia, Haider needs to work on his top speed. His training is far too often interrupted in Iraq - checkpoints litter the roads from his college to the river.

When rowing on the river Tigris, he has to continually look over his shoulder in case his boat collides with one of the many fishing vessels that also use the river.

He has spent the summer of 2011 in the Netherlands with a German coach. It has seen a marked improvement in his technique and fitness. But living out of a suitcase isn't fun for anyone, doubly so for Haider who got married earlier this year.

He is, like so many other athletes, determined and passionate. But when you see what he has had to deal with in Iraq, he jumps from just an ordinary sportsman to something different. He is never going to win an Olympic medal but he is a fantastic addition to the Games. And a great story for Iraq.