London 2012: Iraqi rower's Olympic dream ends at event

By Paul I Harris in Chungju, KoreaBBC World Olympic Dreams
Haider Rashid
Rower Haider Rashid was considered a favourite at the Asian qualification regatta

Iraqi rower Haider Rashid's dream of taking part at the London 2012 Olympics has come to an end.

The single sculler was considered a favourite at the Asian qualification regatta but failed to progress by less than a second.

Rashid's old double sculls partner from the Beijing Olympics Hamza Hussein also failed to qualify.

To date one athlete from Iraq will compete at the Games - archer Rand Al-Mashhadani via a wildcard from archery's governing body.

Iraq's rowing team have endured tempestuous conditions on Baghdad's river Tigris. At the height of the second Gulf conflict, their preparations were rocked by road-blocks, rocket explosions and the odd corpse.

Rashid and Hussein joined two other Iraqi athletes at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 but since competing in the double sculls there Rashid has focused on the single sculls event.

He won a bronze medal at the 2010 Asian Games after which the Iraqi Olympic Commissionexternal-link promised the sport more investment.

After missing out on qualification for London 2012 at the 2011 World Rowing Championships in Bled, Slovenia, Rashid was required to finish in the top six rowers at the Asian Olympic Rowing Qualification Regatta.

On the banks of Lake Tangeum in the Republic of Korea, Rashid recalled feeling confident ahead of the semi-final.

"Before the race I was good, I was excited for the race," he said.

"And then I started the race. I did well the first 1,000 metres, I was in second place until the last 200 metres. The last 100 metres I felt… not normal."

Post-race disappointment

Rashid needed to finish in the top three of the semi-final to book a place for London but his early optimism turned sour as rowers from Chinese Taipai and Kazahkstan gained on him.

"I felt them coming but my body didn't give me more. They were 7 minutes 11 seconds. I was 7 minutes 12 seconds - less than one second… disappointed.

"It was crazy. I don't know, I just didn't feel any power in my body. I couldn't stand after the race."

In 1960, at the Rome Olympics, Iraq won its one and only medal - a bronze by weightlifter Abdul Wahid Aziz, the best athlete to emerge from the country for a generation.

Rashid, who has recently got married, recounts the post-race conversation with his wife: "She called me and she said 'ok, don't worry, the important thing is you are fine', and I said 'yes, I am fine'."

Despite the obviously crushing sense of disappointment, Rashid was magnanimous in defeat.

"I will stay with the sport," he said. "It's not the end of the world if I don't go to the Olympic Games because we have the Arab Games and the Asian Games and if we get medals it's OK for Iraq.

"That's the sport. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose."

As for the Rio Olympics of 2016, who knows.

"I'll keep training and it depends on the situation. We are not like other countries that plan for four years but we will keep going on… that's life."