BAGHDAD — Haider Nasir knew the news was coming but it still landed like a punch to the gut.
The Olympic delegation has been barred from competing, said Dr. Talib Faisal, the head of the interim Iraqi Track and Field Federation. He is the same man who'd told Nasir in February that Nasir was going to throw the discus in the Beijing 2008 Olympics.
Iraq's participation had been in doubt since June, when the International Olympic Committee suspended the Iraqi National Olympic Committee for government interference. The Iraqi government in turn said its NOC was not fulfilling its duties.
Meanwhile, for the athletes, registration for most events closed Wednesday. Barring a miracle, no Iraqi will compete at Beijing.
"Keep training as if you're going to go to the Olympics," Faisal said Wednesday when word of the final suspension came. Nasir called his coach, Saad Jasim, who had the same message: "The progress of sport does not come to a halt. It won't do to stop training and wait for their decision or to stop training altogether through desperation."
But Nasir did not sleep that night, or the night after.
"It was my dream to represent Iraq," Nasir said Friday, from his home in Najaf. "I dreamed of lifting the flag."
This is not a figure of speech: by Iraqi tradition, the best athlete carries the flag during the opening procession, and Nasir, holder of the Iraqi discus record with a throw of 196 feet this year, has some claim to that title. "I was thinking about this great honor and I swore not to allow anybody to have it but me," he said.
Nasir is 27. He has spent the last 12 years trying to throw a four and a half pound metal disc as far as he possibly can. His technique was never perfect but daily training improved it, and afternoon sessions in the gym bulked him up to over 200 pounds.
His high school phys ed teacher was the first to spot his promise. By 1997, Nasir was one of the best juniors in the country; by 2001 he was best thrower, bar none.
But desire and natural talent alone don't win Olympic medals. Nasir's competitors around the world have nutritionists to calibrate their diets, strength trainers to shape their bodies and electricity so they can train at night.
Nasir had a set of his own weights and a bramble-filled field that lacked even the concrete circle where a discus-thrower takes his stance. In today's Iraq, asking for more is futile.
"The war has affected all walks of life," said his coach, Jasim. "There are no services and no support system - very few people think that sports are a priority in a war zone, and therefore we are in a weak position to demand more attention to our needs. What we had is gone."
When the Olympic invitation came, the two moved to a training camp in Ukraine, where they joined teams from Germany and Saudi Arabia.
They were at the camp when news of the Iraqi NOC's suspension was announced in June. Whatever doubts Nasir had about continuing, Jasim dispelled. They'd been working together three years -- too long, he felt, to give up. "We will continue to train," he said.
There is still a chance -- however slight -- that Iraq will reinstate the original NOC before the end of the month, meeting the IOC's demands and just meeting the entry deadline for track and field.
"I train every day hoping that things will change positively at the last moment," Nasir said. "I still have the hope that an official from the Olympic Committee would call me and say that I can participate."
Even as he said this, he was getting ready to buy a generator so he can watch the Olympics on television when the power is out, which is most of the time. He was looking forward to watching, he said.
But something in Nasir is changed, said Jasim. He is less happy and less hopeful than a man in the prime of his life should be. Jasim has felt this for months, since the news reached them in Ukraine.
"He has a quiet temperament, but I can feel the rage and agitation under the surface," he said. "God help him — God help us all."
(Spangler reports for The Miami Herald. Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent in Baghdad. Laith Hamoudi contributed.)