King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Olympics: What else but a huge sports upset could make Iraq go silly with joy? Plus: Shame on ESPN.

By Salon Staff

Published August 13, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

When the Opening Ceremonies represent an anticlimax, you have to say the Olympics have gotten off to a pretty good start.

The Olympic soccer tournament begins before the official opening of the Games so they can get all the matches in, and the Iraqi team ensured Thursday that when the athletes march and the music plays and whatever over-the-top folderol is going to unfold unfolds Friday night, one of the signature moments of the Athens Games will already have taken place 130 miles away in Patras.

It may turn out to be the signature moment. These Olympics could be pretty good without its being topped.

Iraq beat Portugal 4-2 in a first-round match Thursday. It's not going to lead to a gold medal, but we can still call it a miracle on grass, an overused phrase, even if it did take place in front of a sea of empty seats.

In 1950 the United States pulled off one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history by beating England 1-0. They've made a movie about that match. We're still congratulating ourselves over it. Compared to Iraq over Portugal, it was Manchester United beating the North Central Under-10 All-Stars.

The Americans, after all, hadn't just been invaded. They weren't under a foreign occupation that followed decades of murderous tyranny. There were surely some inspiring stories of hardship overcome on that American side, but none of them included being jailed and tortured for playing badly by the psychotic son of the dictator.

The Iraqis overcame that and more just to qualify for the Olympics in a major upset this spring. They could have been forgiven for not expecting much on the scoreboard when just walking onto the pitch represented a victory of unimaginable proportions for anyone who hasn't been through similar depredation.

It would have been all right if they'd folded up the tent after falling behind 1-0 on an accidental own-goal by defender Haidar Jabar, a mistake that would have had tragic consequences for Jabar if Udai Hussein were still running things, but this time only meant a probable defeat. This was Portugal, after all, a medal favorite fresh off an upset loss to Greece in the final of Euro 2004. (Though because the Olympic soccer tournament is for under-23 teams only, with three age exceptions allowed per team, the Euro 2004 squad was a different, better bunch of players.)

It took three minutes for Iraq to tie the score. Emad Mohammed on a rebound. Iraq took the lead later in the first half but Portugal tied it before the break. A moral victory: even-up at halftime.

Younis Mahmoud scored the game winner in the 56th minute, shortly after English premier league player Luis Boa Morte was ejected for rough play, forcing Portugal to play a man short. Iraq added another goal in injury time. Baghdad is still celebrating, the gunshots for a change signifying happiness, not combat.

This is what the Olympics can bring us. Moments of staggering surprise and joy -- and, on the losing side, devastation, though in this case Portugal is still in the tournament. The feelings of Iraqis following their team's win are the feelings the TV networks are trying to manufacture in all of us with their endless up-close features about athletes who have overcome often vastly overstated obstacles.

Cynics and critics of the Olympics dislike the nationalism the Games foster, the medal counts and flag waving. But a little nationalism can be just the thing in the right situation. It's hard to picture any result being a cathartic experience for anyone, a fond memory taken to the grave, if the names of all the world's athletes were thrown into a hat and the teams created alphabetically.

Whatever happens next, for a few hours the happiest people on earth were almost certainly all Iraqi. When's the last time that might have been true? Remember this the next time someone's going on about how trivial sports are, how ridiculous it is for people to pay so much attention to a bunch of kids' games.

Not that there isn't room for cynicism. Until Iraq's victory Thursday, the subjects that have dominated these soon-to-start Olympics have been construction delays, cost overruns and doping scandals, and the last will again replace Iraq's upset at the top of the headlines soon enough.

The home country has been losing athletes all week to bizarre events. First judo fighter Eleni Ioannou fell or was thrown four stories off an apartment balcony Saturday, reportedly after a quarrel with her boyfriend, who leapt from the same balcony two days later. Both were critically injured and remain comatose.

Then on Thursday two of Greece's most famous athletes were lost for the Games when they failed to show up for a drug test, then were injured in a motorcycle accident. Kostas Kenteris, the 200-meter gold medalist in 2000, and Ekaterini Thanou, who won a silver in the 100 meters in Sydney, suffered cuts and bruises when they crashed while returning from a visit to their coach in the suburbs, but that happened after they couldn't be found by drug testers in the Olympic Village.

When the stakes are this high, cheating and craziness are to be expected, but so are drama and exhilaration. Not to mention bureaucracy and confusion, mediocrity and excellence, pettiness and grace, and crime and punishment. The whole ball of wax. The Olympics probably can't be expanded into a metaphor for life itself, but almost anything that goes on in life has an analogue somewhere in the Games. That's what makes them so compelling, such a great show.

It's just putting a ball in a net or running faster or jumping higher or whatever, but it's not just that. Ask the Iraqis. Ask the Greeks too.

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Plenty of Tigers-A's highlights, though [PERMALINK]

This column has been beating up on ESPN a lot lately, but at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I have to say shame on the network for completely ignoring the Iraq-Portugal match, not to mention the entirety of the goings-on in Greece, on its signature news show, "SportsCenter."

On the Thursday night broadcast that was still running Friday morning, "SportsCenter" whispered not one word about Iraq's stunning victory, which was over by 4 p.m. EDT Thursday. Nothing about the other three men's soccer matches either (Paraguay over Japan and ties for Costa Rica-Morocco and Italy-Ghana), or anything else having to do with the last day before the official beginning of the biggest sporting event in the world.

Which is being broadcast by NBC.

An honest oversight, no doubt. Simple editorial judgment. And besides, there were two exhibition football games that had to be covered.

Previous column: U.S. athlete behavior

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