From Thames to Tigris World Olympic Dreams


From Thames to Tigris

Four-times Olympic Gold medallist Matthew Pinsent travels to Baghdad to meet two Iraqi rowers with dreams of competing at London 2012.


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World Olympic Dreams. He trap -- Matthew Pinsent travels to Baghdad

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hoping to speak to Iraqi hopefuls MUSIC PLAYS # A little bird told me

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that you love me That you love me # And I believe that you do I believe

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# This little bird told me I was fallin' Really fallin' # Fallin'

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for no-one but you No-one but you # There's no use denyin' # I might as

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well confess # Of all the boys I know, dear # I'm sure I love you

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best # The little bird... # Henley Royal Regatta. The world's oldest

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rowing race, held every year on the Thames over a mile and 550 yards

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It is in many ways the epitome of the sport of gentlemen. The world's

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fastest rowers battling it out in front of the wealthiest sporting

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crowds. A showcase event for a sport that Britain has come to

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But that success does not come easy. Today's generation of elite rowers

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spend hour after hour doing this. The funding is immense, some �27

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million has been poured into the sport in pursuit of a gold at

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London 2012. It is going to be so close! And I know how that pays off.

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Moments I can ever forget. A whole country tuned in to see British

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rowing holding its head high, again It is clear watching the current

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crop of athletes that not much has changed. The equipment, the

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dedication, all too familiar. The London Olympics is motivating

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hundreds of athletes to do things So when the chance came as part of

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the World Olympic Dreams series to follow the lives of athletes around

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the world, I could not resist tracking down some kindred spirits.

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So we set about trying to find two rowers training somewhere in the

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world to come to the London Olympics. What I had not banked on

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is exactly where they lived. But it was not a hard choice to

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make. I had to meet the Iraqi rowers, Haider Rashid and Hamza

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Before I set off, I had to go under intensive training for hostile

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On the way into town from the airport, I was given a quick lesson

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in Baghdad reality. The road where we are now used to be the most

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dangerous road in the world. Some sobering thoughts about the bad

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times in Baghdad. We are still coming here and training and we saw

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bodies in the river. And to top it Baghdad - a city of some 7 million

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people. Plagued by war for decades. At its heart, one of the ancient

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rivers of the world, the Tigris. Flowing from the mountains in

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Turkey until it merges with the Euphrates at Basra and then out

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into the Gulf. 1,800 kilometres from source to the sea, it brings

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life and greenery to the heartland The river has been a constant in

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It is supposed to be the acid test of a rower, that you cannot look

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out on a piece of water without thinking what it would be like to

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row on that. There might be litter everywhere, helicopter gunships,

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but from a rowing point of view, Recent times have seen such trauma

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and chaos for this country. The young here have grown up knowing

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little but war and it shows in the So when that Saddam Hussein statue

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came down, I was probably on training camp in Italy watching it

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on television, a year away from the Athens Olympics. Life for me since

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has moved in lots of different directions but never for one moment

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did I think I would be standing In the heart of the English

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countryside, a stately venue for a We are just going in, we need to be

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quiet now. Stop. Stop. Journalists wanting to venture into war zones

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are put through their paces on a course. Hostile environment and

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first aid training. We enact the worst possible scenarios. Dodging

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imaginary gun fire and treating the This might look contrived but it

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feels all too real. There's a new bomb out called the magnetic bomb.

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Craig Summers is the person you turn to in the BBC if you're

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heading somewhere dodgy. We met up for a last minute briefing. As you

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can see, the yellow spots on the map are incidents. OK. How recent

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are they? That is in the past week. Week? Yes. Some of these happen and

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you will not even know they have happened. But you will hear

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explosions at night or during the day. Small arms fire every now and

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again. So it is part and parcel of going to Baghdad. This is an extra

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large flak jacket. It does up at the side. It weighs about 10 kilos.

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A quick visit to see Emma in the news-gathering safety stores for

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some vital equipment. You'll need a I'm pleased to say that that was

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the last time I put my flak jacket on. From the moment I arrived in

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Baghdad it stayed in the car, but This road you're on now used to be

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the most dangerous road in the world. But the Americans have gone

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and the interchanges are now manned by the Iraqi police. All along the

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central reservation there used to be palm trees. Then when the

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Americans came in, they chopped the My first taste of Baghdad traffic.

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I'm here to meet Hamza Hussein, a quarter of the whole Iraqi team at

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the Beijing by Olympics. He and his partner, Haider Rashid, competed in

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the double sculls. Nice to meet you. You had the Asian Games, and now

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what is next? Now Egypt, the Arabic games. We're off to the Baghdad

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Rowing Club, a place I have been imagining for months and now I'm

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about to see for the first time. It should be a ten-minute journey, but

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this is Baghdad. It is slow to drive. Every day in this city, jam

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after jam. Road blocks and checkpoints. A convoy of huge

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American armoured vehicles does not help move things along. This city

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gets you nowhere fast. But it did give us time to compare rowing

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calluses. Six years - gone. Just Haider Rashid had a better idea. He

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is 27 and bikes his way every day from Baghdad University to the

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river. The distant sound of gunfire You train here every day? Every day.

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Meeting with these guys and the other rowers, we soon find a common

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issue. Fitting new sculling grips is a pain whether on the Tigris or

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the Thames. The last bit is always What happened here? I crashed! Hit

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the bottom! The Baghdad boat house is much like any other around the

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world. It may lack a few bells and whistles but at its heart it is a

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It is an unavoidable fact that if you put three rowers together, it

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doesn't take long before they start discussing weights. We call it a

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pull-down, a lap pull-down. 300 kilos for this, plus this, plus

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this. Full-time for the weights? The wars here meant that neither

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had rowed until quite late on. When they started out, the club could

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barely afford the oars, never mind the boats they now have. So getting

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to Beijing was more than half the battle. They wrote about us that we

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were rowing for the first time in the Olympic Games. Just two

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athletes. One runner and the other through this. So we're just four

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from Iraq. And was the Olympics everything you thought it was going

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to be? We had imagined something and to see it was amazing.

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Everything organised. And the Village, the restaurants. I think

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sport has united all Iraqi people. This river was the frontline in so

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much of the recent conflict here. After Saddam was toppled, sectarian

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violence spiralled out of control. 2006/7, this year was very, very

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bad. Nobody can go normally in the street. You just want to be at home.

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We still came here training. We see a lot of bodies in the river. There

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is one, two bodies down there. We cannot move it. We still train

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three metres from it. We go from here to the body. One body stayed

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there two or three weeks. I left Iraq at that time. What made you

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come back? I was asked to come back for training and competing.

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Hamza ever thought about going somewhere else? Hamza never think

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he leave Iraq. He stay with the Stepping away from the water and

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reflecting on what they've had to endure, it makes the hardship of an

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ordinary athlete seem almost luxurious. It begs the question,

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Here we go. Go into the street cafes and it's clear just how the

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average Baghdad residents love their sport and how much Iraq needs

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it. TRANSLATION: When Iraq does well at sport, it is good for our

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country's reputation. It makes us feel good about ourselves. We can

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forget about the killing, the bombings, the corruption, it makes

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us feel happy. Iraqis are passionate about their

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sport but they've only ever won one medal at the Olympics, a bronze in

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weight lifting 50 years ago. Looking back over the last few

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decades, what strikes you is that they've managed to get to every

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game since 1980, that, despite the wars and the upheaval. There are

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dark tales from the Saddam Husseineer era. His son headed the

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Olympic Committee. And there were reports of torture and murder for

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those who missed training or didn't So any success is something to

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cherish. Haider knows that but he also has to face reality. He's

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getting married. Marriage is a new phase for anyone. It may be one of

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several changes for him. Iraq is his home for now. But will it offer

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him the best chance to train and compete at the level he aspires to?

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For the time being, his life is much like any other aspiring

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sportsman of his age. A daily routine of study and training. But

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he left Iraq once before because of the war and lived in Sweden. Now,

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the training opportunities that another country could offer may

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pull him away from the friends and the city he loves. He has a tough

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decision to make. Tough, too, as going would mean leaving behind his

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rowing partner Hamza. At 34, he's nine years older than Haider. He's

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very settled here juggling training with his home life. He worked in

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the family bakery before giving that up to row full-time. It may

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not seem like much. But this generator is one of the perks that

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Hamza's sporting status allows him. A luxury in a city where power cuts

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are still a daily occurrance. Those hours in the weights room are worth

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it, then. The noise of the generator may well drown out

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anything you're trying to watch on the TV. But a cup of tea from your

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mum is welcome wherever you are. For Hamza, a chance to compete in

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London either with or without Haider is his main goal. He

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survives on prize money and the monthly grant he gets from the

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Olympic Committee. Rowing is his whole life and it defines who he is.

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TRANSLATION: What I love about rowing has to be the competitions.

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When we train, I think about the plan the coach has put together for

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us. I think about how I can adapt it so I can get the best out of

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myself. We put so much effort into it. Here in Baghdad, there are so

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many challenges involved. I feel when I compete I can really show my

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courage. For the younger generation of rowers here, Haider and Hamza

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are more than just role models. They are proof that, despite the

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odds stacked against them, they can make it. They can get to world

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competitions and prove Iraq is more than just a war zone. The club

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officials are in no doubt of how sport can bring this nation

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together. TRANSLATION: Sport is very important here. It involves a

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large section of youngsters and brings together people from

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different parts of Iraqi society. From different ethnicities and

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sectors. It doesn't differentiate between Arab, Kurdish, Sunni, Shia

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and so on. It is an uniter of all Iraqis. We hope Iraq's getting

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better. There's security. We want peace, live normally like everybody

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lives. Right now, we are living normally. I go to my college, come

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to my training. Normal life. He have job. Goes to his job. We hope

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Iraq's getting better by security. There is no more war, no more bombs.

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Be safe. That's what we hope for Hamza and Haider are too modest to

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see themselves as peace makers. They are rowers first and foremost.

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Dedicated enough for them to rejig this boat to fit one huge former

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Olympian in. Now we come to the bit of the trip

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I've been looking forward to. That's going rowing on the Tigris.

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I'm going with Hamza and Haider. And another from the club. Haider

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is a heavyweight. Like me. He's a big guy. He's at least fit. Hamza

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is a lightweight. He's probably six inches shorter and at least three

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stone lighter than Haider. We're giving away a bit of power with

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that. The other guy who's coming down will be a lightweight. It will

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be a bit of a mix and match four, you could say. But I'm still

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looking forward to it. It's not really de rigueur to allow two of

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your crewmates to do all the work. So I better help them before we go

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out on the water. So many of us are fascinated by the tales of winning

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that will spring from the London Games. The champions, the medals.

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Iraq has only won a single bronze in Olympic history. And that won't

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Apology for the loss of subtitles for 43 seconds

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change in London, but that's not My time in Iraq is coming to an end.

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I'll be glad to be at home and to really ask myself, was it worth it?

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It's been hard work and yes, on some levels, it's been dangerous.

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But workload and risk are what Hamza and Haider have to balance

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every day. So I guess I owed to them. Yes, it was worth it.

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Ever since I've been in Baghdad, the only time the place has ever

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felt right is down by the river. Whether it is filming down that way

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in the city. Or coming here to the rowing club and seeing these guys

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training here, doing their preparations. It's been standing on

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the bank that's looked good for the first time. When you step back from

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the river, it's all much harder work. It's chaos, traffic, it's

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pollution, it's corruption and of course, the violence. And then

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suddenly, this afternoon, going out on to the water, all that falls

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