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War is just another challenge for hopeful athletes in the history of sport

The Iraqi fans show what enthusiasm is all about (Photo: Getty Images)
by Stavros Markoulakis, AIPS Young Reporter, Greece

RAMSAU, March 23, 2017 - It might be the drive to bring some joy to your nation during hard times, a need to escape from a catastrophic situation or just an unbreakable will to succeed. The sure thing is that a champion can arise even in the most difficult of circumstances and certainly there are not many circumstances more difficult than living in a country that is in a state of war. What Syrian athlete Asmaa Naser Eddin achieved recently in the World Winter Special Olympics Games, when she won the silver medal at 25m snowshoeing, is more than inspiring. She, however, is not the only one who has achieved such a feat. When we look at recent history, there are more examples of sport overcoming war.

The Iraqi National Football Team

Iraq was a country in the midst of war in 2004. The country was invaded by US troops only a year earlier. Nonetheless though, the Iraqi national team, even though they did not have a big football tradition, made a great impact during the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. It was at the very beginning of the tournament that the Iraqi team shocked football fans from around the world with their 4-2 victory over a Portuguese team that included young stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Raul Meireles and Bruno Alves. Another victory - 2-0 against Costa Rica, got them through to the quarterfinals, where they would also beat Australia 1-0 and qualify for a historical last four. There they lost 3-1 to Paraguay and went on to battle for the bronze with Italy, where they only lost by a narrow margin (1-0). The national team might not have brought a medal back home, but they would be celebrated as heroes.

The celebrations of course were even bigger when they actually brought gold home, winning the Asian Cup in 2007. To do so, they had to beat favorites for the title like Australia (3-1) and South Korea (0-0 after ET, 4-3 after penalties). In the final they would beat Saudi Arabia 1-0, winning the title for their first time ever.

Bronze medalist Rohullah Nikpah of Afghanistan celebrates on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Men's-68kg Taekwondo on Day 13 of the London 2012 Olympic Games (Photo: Getty Images)

Rohullah Nikpai – Afghanistan (Taekwondo)

Afghan taekwondo athlete Rohullah Nikpai was only 10 years old when his family left Kabul because of the civil war in 1997 and settled in one of the many Afghan refugee camps in Iran. At the time he had already started to train taekwondo and soon became a member of the Afghan refugee team. The war would not stop for many years, but he would also not stop evolving as an athlete.

In 2008 he would become a national hero for Afghanistan, because at the Beijing Olympic Games he would not only bring a medal to the war-torn country, but it would be the first in its entire history. Nikpai participated in the 58kg category of taekwondo and won the bronze medal by defeating the Spanish two-time world champion Juan Antonio Ramos. When the fight was over, he fell to his knees, wept and embraced his coaches. To the media he said “I hope this medal can be a message of peace in Afghanistan.”

Thousands of his compatriots gathered at Kabul National Stadium to give him a warm welcome. For once, all Afghans could leave their disputes aside and celebrate together. Nikpai would give them the same chance again four years later, winning the bronze medal in London in the 68kg category.

Ismail Ahmed Ismail – Sudan

Sudan is another country with an ongoing civil war, which is perhaps the deadliest of the 21st century. In the region of Darfur, this war had as a result the genocide of a population, which is estimated by the United Nations to be around 300.000. The runner Ismail Ahmed Ismail hails from Darfur, but his family migrated to the capital Khartoum before he was born. Of course, it was lucky that they weren’t in the center of the war, but conflicts happen in most places in Sudan and even in the capital life was not easy.

Nonetheless, in 2008 at the Olympic Games in Beijing Ismail Ahmed Ismail became the first athlete ever from Sudan to win an Olympic medal. He participated in the 800m race and won the silver medal completing the race in 1:44.70, coming second to Wilfred Bungei from Kenya, who finished in 1:44.65. At the time, the entire media scene in Sudan, despite having deep divisions among itself, praised the athlete as an icon. However, it should be said, that a few years later, during the London Games, he asked for asylum in Great Britain and didn’t compete.

The Young Reporters Programme has been made possible thanks to the support of the European Union's Erasmus + programme

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