An Iraqi student with a dream of taking his country to the Winter Olympics for the first time spent eight years and a small fortune overcoming every obstacle but may still fall fractions of a second short.
Faisal Faisal just missed formally qualifying for the Turin Olympics on Sunday in skeleton. Heartbroken, he said fresh snow on the track had slowed his fourth and final run after three strong times in a Olympic qualifier in the German town of Koenigsee.
Riding his sled face-down and head-first at 120 kph, Faisal climbed to ninth place by the penultimate round. He was confident he could finish eighth in a field of 40 to qualify.
Then falling snow slowed the ice. Faisal tumbled lower down the scoreboard.
"I was only one spot away from qualifying and was sure I was going to move up three or four spots on the last run," Faisal said.
Faisal could still possibly get a wild-card entry for the February 10-26 Turin Games but time is running out. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2004 granted several Iraqis special slots for the Athens Games a few months after reinstating Iraq and its sports federations.
Iraq and its Olympic committee are understandably preoccupied with concerns more pressing than setting up federations for the Winter Olympic sports at the moment even though an official in Baghdad said they were trying to help.
"I'll go home now to be with my family," Faisal said after years of fighting red tape to pursue his Olympic ambitions. "I don't know what's going to happen now. I didn't have a plan for not qualifying. You don't plan for not making it."
Considering the hurdles he has overcome largely on his own, from the bureaucratic obstacles to training expenses paid out of his own pocket and to a lack of federation backing, it is a miracle that Faisal even came close to direct qualification.
"Our country really needs some good news," said Faisal, who proudly wears a helmet with an Iraqi flag painted on it. "My first three times were good and if I had just an average or good last run I would have had a shot. I thought for sure I'd get it."
The affable 25-year-old, nicknamed "Face", has been studying business administration in Sydney for eight years but his focus since 1998 has been on getting Iraq to the Winter Olympics despite the unrest in the country.
"I saw the opening ceremony at Nagano in 1998 on television and kept waiting for the Iraq team to come in," he said. "I couldn't believe there was no one from Iraq. It became my goal right then. I thought Iraq has to be a part of the Olympics."
His parents in Baghdad supported the dream even though his father, a civil engineer, at first did not know what skeleton was. The former athletics champion in Iraq now gives his son regular training tips.
Faisal estimates he has spent more than 50,000 euros of his family's wealth trying to get to the Olympics. He spent US$4,000 on his small sled alone and on Monday settled a 1,000-euro bill for 52 training runs he had taken at Koenigsee since December 8.
Every cent was worth it, he said. He has received hundreds of calls and letters from Iraqis cheering his efforts back home. His competitive times prove he is not a hopeless case despite growing up in a country with no winter sports tradition.
"I just wanted to help Iraq to be part of the world," Faisal said. "That's what the Olympic movement is all about, isn't it? I wanted us to be part of that. Not only every four years at summer Olympics but every two years at all the Olympics."
In 2001, Faisal tried Alpine skiing, commuting to a ski resort seven hours from Sydney.
"I went skiing every day I had off from school," he said. Progress was slow so he switched to snowboarding with hopes of qualifying for Salt Lake City in 2002 but the criteria proved too difficult.
Undeterred, he tried speed skating but then found out that the International Skating Union (ISU) would not certify him for the Olympics because Iraq does not have an ice rink.
"They told me Iraq needed to have an ice rink for at least the last five years," said Faisal, who was homeless for a short time in Australia when bank transfers from Iraq were disrupted by the US-led invasion of his homeland.
Faisal was ready to try ski jumping as a way into the Olympics but was told by one federation he was being ridiculous. In 2004 someone suggested he try skeleton.
"The speed and excitement appealed to me," he said even if the cold conditions have proved difficult. "I don't think I'll ever get used to the cold weather."
Unable to get a visa to train in Austria, he turned to the US skeleton federation in 2004 and they were happy to help. He spent four weeks in Lake Placid making steady improvements.
Faisal returned to university in Sydney and worked hard in the off season to build up his strength and improve his starting speed.
"My push times are among the best in the world," he said proudly. "Everyone tells me I have world-class push times and if I don't make it to the Olympics should stay in the sport. But right now I just don't know what I'll do."
Teris Odisho, director-general of the Iraqi National Olympic Committee, said they had tried to get Faisal a wild card for Turin but had been refused.
He said officials would keep trying but had only slim hopes.
"I told him not to feel down as we are fully behind him," Odisho said. "I told him to focus on getting to the (Asian) Winter games in (Changchun) China early next year and maybe then we can dream about Vancouver in 2010."
"He is an excellent sportsman and we have supported him since he told us about his ambitions. We share his view but it was a shame we couldn't do much to support him financially. We will request special funds so we can train him outside Iraq."
Faisal said it was hard to give up his dream.
"I was so much hoping to carry the Iraqi flag into the opening ceremonies. I just can't let go of that idea. I wanted to show the children of Iraq that anything is possible."
Source: China Daily