No Kuwaiti flag - but IOC gets one right

SINGAPORE -- The temptation for many in looking at the photo of the flag-raising ceremony here Wednesday night after the boys' 50-meter backstroke will be to see the Olympic flag where the flag of Kuwait should have been, and to blame the International Olympic Committee. That would be wrong.

Instead, the IOC is to be saluted.

No, Abdullah Altuwaini didn't get to see the Kuwaiti flag go up for the bronze medal he won, a third-place tie in a very close race. It is not fair that a 17-year-old boy didn't get to fully enjoy his moment  -- and what a moment, the first Olympic-category swim medal won by an athlete from Kuwait.

A moment or two before the medals ceremony got underway, Abdullah even was asked -- it wasn't clear by whom -- to take off the T-shirt he was wearing that said "Kuwait" on it. He did so, and put on a sleeveless blue one with harmless commentary. Go Rafael Nadal, it said.

In the bigger picture, Abdullah was here, and he got to swim, and he won a medal, and maybe the medal will go a long way toward resolving one of the most complex disputes very few have even heard about -- a dispute that cuts directly to the essence of keeping sport apart from government interference.

But first the obvious:

"Of course it is a pity we haven't seen our country's flag," the  Kuwaiti ambassador to Singapore, Abdulaziz Al-Adwani, who was on hand Wednesday, said.

The reason why is because the IOC earlier this year suspended the Kuwait Olympic Committee, citing political interference from the nation's parliament.

That it would come to suspension when the Olympic committee at issue is Kuwait makes it all the more fascinating. One of the movement's more influential figures is Sheikh Ahmed Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, a former Kuwaiti Olympic Committee president who since 1991 has served as head of the Olympic Council of Asia, the continental confederation.

That the IOC would take action when it's the sheik's own country tells you the gravity with which president Jacques Rogge and other senior IOC officials view the issue.

The IOC tried for nearly three years to reach a compromise. But in January of this year, it finally had no choice but to spend the Kuwaiti committee.

In announcing the suspension, as the Associated Press reported at the time, the IOC said Kuwait failed to meet a Dec. 31 deadline for amending a law that allows the Gulf state to interfere in the elections of sports organizations.

The IOC is right to insist on the political autonomy of the sports organizations affiliated with the Olympic movement. To take a different position would be intolerable. Imagine if in the United States members of Congress were, for instance, able to exert direct control over the elections, the management or the  budget authority of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Yikes.

"Kuwait needs swimming to develop in the Middle East," the secretary-general of the nation's swimming federation, Husain Al-Musallam, said here Wednesday evening.

Al-Musallam, who is also director-general of the OCA, added, "The problem is not the IOC."

It's not clear when the Kuwaiti dispute will be resolved.

The suspension wasn't much of an issue for the Vancouver Olympics, Kuwait hardly being a Winter Games nation.

But what to do about these inaugural Youth Games? YOG, as this competition is known, is supposed to be as much about what the Olympic movement can teach young people as it is a Games-style sports event.

The compromise was to allow Kuwaiti athletes -- but not as part of a Kuwaiti team.

There are three on the YOG rolls, identified formally not as Kuwaiti but as "athlete from Kuwait": a girl, Hessah Alzayed, who is entered in the shooting competition, and two boys, 400-meter hurdler Yousef Karam, and Abdullah. Each is 17 years old.

Of the three, Abdullah was considered the likeliest to win a medal. His sports hero, he says, is Michael Phelps; Abdullah says he hoped here to emulate Phelps and win Olympic gold, at least Youth Games-style.

In Monday's final of the boys' 100 back, Abdullah was disqualified. He false-started.

His start Wednesday was clean. And halfway through the race, it was clear he would win a medal. But what color?

As the swimmers neared the wall, the few Kuwaiti fans in the stands were going crazy. "I felt I was going to have a heart attack," 14-year-old Ali Dashti said.

At the end, Abdullah faded just slightly.

Christian Homer of Trinidad & Tobago won, in 26.36 seconds. Rainer Kai Wee Ng of Singapore delighted the home crowd by coming in second, in 26.45. Abdullah and Max Ackermann of Australia touched just one-hundredth of a second back, at 26.46, Abdullah in lane six, Max in lane seven.

A history note: the results led to the first-ever Olympic-event swim medals for all three nations, according to the internal YOG news service.

In the mixed zone, the area just off the pool deck where athletes mingle with reporters, nobody stopped Abdullah from waving the Kuwaiti flag. He said he didn't speak much English. Even so, he tried a few sentences:

"Really, really," he said, "I am very happy."

He also said, "Okay, my flag is not here," meaning part of the formal ceremony. "But I am fighting for my flag."