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A Sign Of The Times: The Iraqi Runner

Story #21 in a series of 25. Written to celebrate the CIM’s 25th Anniversary on December 2, 2007. By Cynci Calvin.

The CIM’s Iraqi Runner
The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2002 was followed by an attempt to revitalize Iraq’s chances for competing in the 2004 Summer Olympic Games. An Iraqi Interim Olympic Committee, chaired by Ahmed Al-Samarrai, was established in the West Sector of Bagdhad, also the jurisdiction of Army Colonel Pete Mansoor (CIM Race Director John Mansoor’s brother). Early in 2003, the CIM Board agreed to make a positive gesture to Iraq in support of the Iraqi Olympic Committee’s reconstruction by inviting an Iraqi runner to compete in the CIM.

With the assistance of Army Colonel Pete Mansoor, a selection process was developed to find the suitable runner. Over 1,000 runners applied and sixteen-year-old Ali Hamdam Hashim Al-Bahadly was chosen. He spent five days in the Sacramento area meeting fellow athletes, going to a Kings basketball game, and soaking in American culture.

He successfully completed the CIM — only his second marathon — and learned that a 2:50 pace for the first miles was ambitious. He slowed in the later miles to finish in 3:18. Following his finish, Race Director John Mansoor commented, “Maybe I should have advised him to run with the 3:00 Pace Team Group.” Ali was the first Iraqi athlete to compete in an individual international competition since the fall of Saddam.

Ali did not make it to the 2004 Olympics in Athens. During this time of transition, Iraq fell into a special category under the International Olympic Committee rules. The athletes were excused from having to qualify, thanks to a wild-card entry system designed to include athletes from across the world, but Iraq was alotted only six athletes and the marathon team was not included. We wish we had a follow-up to Ali’s own story here. Sadly, in July 2006 a band of masked gunmen charged into a meeting of the National Iraqi Olympic Committee, and kidnapped 13 people, including its President, Ahmed Al-Samarrai. For the following year there was no news about his whereabouts, but recently Colonel Pete Mansoor confirmed his death. Ahmed Al-Samarrai was the CIM’s connection to Ali, and without him we have lost touch.

From Iraq: A Journey Thousands of Miles to Run 26.2 of Them
December 6, 2003
By Sam Amick, Bee Staff Writer

Reprinted courtesy of The Sacramento Bee

But the smile of Ali Hamdan Hashim Al-Bahadly speaks a universal language. And sitting in a Roseville home Thursday, the latest of five stops on a marathon trip of global levels, the 16-year-old from Iraq wore a grin the size of Baghdad.

“When I told my mom I was leaving, she was sad and excited, and she cried,” Al-Bahadly said through an interpreter. “Then I said that I was going to go (to the United States) and get political asylum and that I wasn’t coming back. That made it worse for her, but I said, ‘No, I’m just (kidding). I’ll be back.’ “

Al-Bahadly is a typical teenager in almost every way. He grew up running and playing soccer, volleyball and basketball. He loves music, reading, movies and, apparently, a good joke.

But last week, when he was told to leave for Sacramento, Al-Bahadly became atypical. When he competes in the California International Marathon on Sunday, he’ll be the first Iraqi to compete internationally in an individual sport since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Hashim Al-Bahadly , who lives with his brother and parents in Al ‘Amarah, about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, won two qualifying races to earn the spot. When he received word of his selection Nov. 28, it was the second highlight of his day.

“The (monthlong) fasting of Ramadan had just ended, and I was extra happy just for that,” Al- Bahadly, the first member of his family to leave Iraq, said through his interpreter. “When I got the news (about the CIM), I was overwhelmed and ecstatic.”

Without a phone to call friends and family, Al-Bahadly jogged around the neighborhood to tell those nearby. He’s been running hard since.

From Baghdad, Al-Bahadly flew to Jordan, where he spent six days before taking off for San Francisco, via New York. He’s had hosts at every stop, welcoming him and playing tour guide.

Friday, he spoke to a group of 80 students at Oakmont, where he’d trained with the cross country team that has adopted him during his stay. Al-Bahadly also was a guest of Joe Maloof at the Kings’ game against Minnesota.

Before coming to the United States, Al-Bahadly knew of California only through the silver screen, and his favorite actor is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

He said he likes nearly everything about the United States and supports the war. Saddam’s reign was oppressive, Al-Bahadly said, and he was glad to see it end.

“At the time of Saddam, we felt handcuffed, like you couldn’t do anything, say anything,” said Al-Bahadly, who hasn’t lost any friends or family to the war. “This has been a really difficult time, because we’d like to think it’s a transitional period. We’re just waiting for what’s going to happen today, tomorrow and next year.”

As for Sunday, Al-Bahadly knows he’s an underdog in the CIM. A veteran of half-marathons in Iraq, he has run in just one full marathon. He finished in 2 hours, 50 minutes – 40 minutes slower than last year’s CIM winner.

The teen diplomat from half a world away will handle the race like everything else – with humor. When told about a CIM legend – 81-year old Rancho Cordova runner Helen Klein, who shattered the record for her age group last year with a finish of 4:31.32, Al-Bahadly quipped: “That’s amazing. I’ll try to beat her.”