Displaced by IS, Iraqi soccer star now off to the Olympics

Ayman Hussein

BAGHDAD (AP) — Islamic State militants drove Ayman Hussein from his home. Eighteen months later, he sent Iraq’s soccer team to the Olympics.

Hussein kicked the game-winning goal against Qatar last month in a qualifying match, uniting Iraqis in a rare moment of triumph and becoming a national celebrity. But his journey to Brazil has been marked by the same violence and displacement that have shattered the lives of so many of his fans.

Hussein and his family fled their home in a village outside the northern city of Kirkuk as IS swept across northern and western Iraq in the summer of 2014. His brother, who was working for the local police, was abducted by the extremists and has not been heard from since.

“No one really knows the story of exactly what happened to him,” Hussein said, adding that he still holds out hope that his brother is alive. He’s told that his family’s home was demolished, and his mother and siblings have found refuge with extended family in Kirkuk while Hussein lives with his team in Baghdad. His father was killed in a 2008 attack in Baghdad claimed by al-Qaida in Iraq, a predecessor of IS.

“This is not my family’s first story of terrorism,” he said. “It probably won’t be our last.”

The shy 23-year-old is still coming to terms with his newfound fame. During a recent practice with his local club on a patch of yellowing grass at a Baghdad sporting complex, he paused to let a fan take a selfie with him as his teammates gently teased him.

“I never thought that one goal would cause this much happiness,” Hussein said.

Like most Iraqis, Hussein grew up playing soccer but never thought he would make a career out of it. That changed when the coach of his local team saw him playing in a park, and later asked him to sub for an injured player. Eager to help support his family after his father’s death, he jumped at the opportunity.

Hussein continued to play during his family’s most recent upheaval. “If I leave football, nothing would change. I wouldn’t get any of those things back,” he said. “I still thank God for my situation. I have walls around me… Many of the displaced Iraqis are living in tents.”

The soccer team’s victory over better-funded Qatar has become a rare point of pride across the country. Team jerseys are among the hottest-selling items in Baghdad’s main sportswear market, and the players returned to a hero’s welcome last month, when they were received by the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi.

They were also received by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, head of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of mostly Shiite militias fighting IS alongside Iraq’s regular security forces.

Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, said al-Muhandis compared the players to his fighters. “He said that we don’t give blood, but we give inspiration.”

Hussein shrugs when he recounts the story. “I guess it’s unique to meet these people, that it’s a nice feeling,” he said.

He’s more excited about this summer’s trip to Brazil.

“I’ve never even left Iraq except for trips with the football team,” he said. “I only know about Brazil from YouTube and TV. They say that it’s famous for beaches and women,” he added with a shy laugh.

MORE: Brazil taps favorites for over-age Olympic players

Snowboarders sue coach, USOPC in assault, harassment case

LG Snowboard-Cross FIS World Cup

Olympic bronze medalist Rosey Fletcher has filed a lawsuit accusing former snowboard coach Peter Foley of sexually assaulting, harassing and intimidating members of his team for years, while the organizations overseeing the team did nothing to stop it.

Fletcher is a plaintiff in one of two lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Thursday. One names Foley, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, the U.S. Ski & Snowboard team and its former CEO, Tiger Shaw, as defendants. Another, filed by a former employee of USSS, names Foley, Shaw and the ski federation as defendants.

One of the lawsuits, which also accuse the defendants of sex trafficking, harassment, and covering up repeated acts of sexual assault and misconduct, allege Foley snuck into bed and sexually assaulted Fletcher, then shortly after she won her bronze medal at the 2006 Olympics, approached her “and said he still remembered ‘how she was breathing,’ referring to the first time he assaulted her.”

The lawsuits describe Foley as fostering a depraved travel squad of snowboarders, in which male coaches shared beds with female athletes, crude jokes about sexual conquests were frequently shared and coaches frequently commented to the female athletes about their weight and body types.

“Male coaches, including Foley, would slap female athletes’ butts when they finished their races, even though the coaches would not similarly slap the butts of male athletes,” the lawsuit said. “Physical assault did not stop with slapping butts. Notably, a female athlete once spilled barbeque sauce on her chest while eating and a male coach approached her and licked it off her chest without warning or her consent.”

The USOPC and USSS knew of Foley’s behavior but did nothing to stop it, the lawsuit said. It depicted Foley as an all-powerful coach who could make and break athletes’ careers on the basis of how they got along off the mountain.

Foley’s attorney, Howard Jacobs, did not immediately return requests for comment from The Associated Press. Jacobs has previously said allegations of sexual misconduct against Foley are false.

In a statement, the USOPC said it had not seen the complaint and couldn’t comment on specific details but that “we take every allegation of abuse very seriously.”

“The USOPC is committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of Team USA athletes, and we are taking every step to identify, report, and eliminate abuse in our community,” the statement said.

It wasn’t until the Olympics in Beijing last year that allegations about Foley’s behavior and the culture on the snowboarding team started to emerge.

Allegations posted on Instagram by former team member Callan Chythlook-Sifsof — who, along with former team member Erin O’Malley, is a plaintiff along with Fletcher — led to Foley’s removal from the team, which he was still coaching when the games began.

That posting triggered more allegations in reporting by ESPN and spawned an AP report about how the case was handled between USSS and the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which is ultimately responsible for investigating cases involving sex abuse in Olympic sports. The center has had Foley on temporary suspension since March 18, 2022.

The AP typically does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault unless they have granted permission or spoken publicly, as Fletcher, Chythlook-Sifsof and O’Malley have done through a lawyer.

USSS said it was made aware of the allegations against Foley on Feb 6, 2022, and reported them to the SafeSport center.

“We are aware of the lawsuits that were filed,” USSS said in a statement. “U.S. Ski & Snowboard has not yet been served with the complaint nor has had an opportunity to fully review it. U.S. Ski & Snowboard is and will remain an organization that prioritizes the safety, health and well-being of its athletes and staff.”

The lawsuits seek unspecified damages to be determined in a jury trial.

Oleksandr Abramenko, Ukraine’s top Winter Olympian, tears knee, career in question

Oleksandr Abramenko

Aerials skier Oleksandr Abramenko, who won both of Ukraine’s medals over the last two Winter Olympics, is out for the season after a knee ligament tear and said he might not return to competition at all, according to Ukrainian media.

Abramenko, 34, won gold at the 2018 Olympics — Ukraine’s second-ever individual Winter Olympic title after figure skater Oksana Baiul in 1994 — and silver last year.

He competed once this season, placing 10th at a World Cup in Finland on Dec. 4, and then flew with the Ukrainian national team to stay in Utah ahead of World Cups in Canada in January and at the 2002 Olympic venue in Park City this weekend. The area also hosted many Ukraine winter sports athletes this past summer.

Abramenko missed the competition in Canada two weeks ago due to injury and then wasn’t on the start list for today’s aerials event in Park City. He is set to miss the world championships later this month in Georgia (the country, not the state).

Abramenko said he needs surgery, followed by a nine-month rehabilitation process, similar to an operation on his other knee six years ago, according to Ukraine’s public broadcaster. He said he will see how the recovery goes and determine whether to return to the sport at age 35, according to the report.

Abramenko is already the oldest Olympic men’s aerials medalist and come the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Games will be older than all but one male aerialist in Olympic history, according to Olympedia.org.

At last year’s Olympics, Abramenko, Ukraine’s flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony, was hugged after the aerials final by Russian Ilya Burov, who finished one spot behind Abramenko for a bronze medal. A week later, Russia invaded Ukraine.

A week after that, Abramenko posed for a photo sitting on a mattress in a Kyiv parking garage with his wife and 2-year-old son published by The New York Times.

“We spend the night in the underground parking in the car, because the air attack siren is constantly on,” Abramenko texted, according to the newspaper. “It’s scary to sleep in the apartment, I myself saw from the window how the air defense systems worked on enemy missiles, and strong explosions were heard.”

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