It’s been a long time since athletes from Iraq have competed at an International Canoe Federation event.

Visa issues, internal and external armed conflict, Covid – the list of barriers that have been placed in the way of Iraq’s small but determined canoeing community has seen them frozen out of top level competition for the best part of a decade.

But in Szeged this week Iraq is back, the first step in what the country hopes will be regular appearances at top-level ICF competitions and, ultimately, the Olympic Games.

“We have had so many problems even within our country,” Sulaiman Al-Samarraie, a men’s K1 1000 paddler, said.

“Last year we had only three boats for all our country. We can not get visas to attend events. We spend weeks at a training camp, and then one week before the event they tell us we can not get a visa.

“It’s not good for our teams. And we have had a war with Daesh, we have problems with our lake on the Tigris River. The water is moving all the time. And only last year did we get a specialist coach.”

Despite the setbacks Al-Samarraie said there is a small but passionate canoeing community in Baghdad. Numbers are growing, including among female paddlers, with seven women now training at the top level in Iraq.

But until this year, there was very little for the athletes to aim for. They could only watch on from afar while athletes from neighbouring countries got to compete on the world stage.

“Our situation is so hard,” he said.

“This is the first time for me to be attending a world cup. For six or seven years we can’t attend events like this.

“In other Asian countries they have been growing step-by-step, but for us we are going back step-by-step. Our support is very small. We need three years to change the battle.

“But canoe kayak in Iraq is a great sport, we now have more women, we have children, but our resources are down. We also now have some slalom athletes and two stand up paddling athletes. All we want is a chance.”

Canoe Sprint