The Iraqi National Rowing Team is vying for a place in the London 2012 Summer Olympics. Under the watchful eye of coach Majeed Saleh, the team has a strict regime of practice, albeit the challenges they face are greater than most. Hamzah Jebur (35) must drive through seven military checkpoints just to get to the boathouse every morning. In 2006, during the height of the sectarian violence, the team used to row past bodies floating in the Tigris. Nowadays that isn’t the case, but they must now row past the Green Zone and a number of government buildings where nervous security guards, frightened by seeing unknown boats, might open fire on them.
Haider Nawzad, a Kurd from Sulaimaniyah, claimed asylum in Sweden, but returned to Baghdad in 2008 to represent Iraq in the Beijing Olympics. In 2010 he won a bronze medal in the Asian Games in Guanzhou and ever since has become a national hero. But that doesn’t stop him and the others from worrying. Over the past decade, athletes have been a target for extremists and more than 30 have been killed to date, including 15 members of the national taekwando team who were kidnapped in 2006. Thirteen bodies were found a year later.
And it’s not just the extremists that are a worry. In February this year the president of the Iraqi Rowing Federation, Abdul Salam Khalaf, was arrested by the anti-terror police, a controversial wing of the Iraqi security forces that are often accused of carrying out false arrests.
See more images of the Iraqi National Rowing team on Corbis here.