In Iraq insurgents fired their weapons skyward not in anger but in joy. In Michigan exiles pumped their fists and beamed. In Greece thousands of fans draped in Iraqi flags were so overcome that waves of them rushed the field and jumped in the arms of their triumphant lads.
They were just some boys from the streets of Iraq but as they marched through the Olympic field -- past Portugal past Costa Rica past Australia -- their humble origins gave them remarkable power a street cred unknown to the leaders of their delegation or even their country. Here was the symbol of Iraq's new national identity.
Here was the real thing Shiites and Sunnis (and even a Kurd!) working together inspiring their legions of supporters and (can you believe it?) winning. Imagine: tiny Iraq was standing toe-to-toe with Argentina and Italy the elite of world soccer.
They were just some boys from the streets of Iraq but for a fleeting moment their voices carried the weight to silence the most powerful man on Earth. It was simple really. They didn't play for the American president who tried to use them in his re-election campaign. They didn't play for the American opposition which took their objections to George W. Bush and used them for its own means.
And they certainly didn't play for the deposed Iraqi dictator and his crazed son the madman who once tortured them without mercy. No they played for themselves their families and their country. And when their Olympic run finally ended just one step from the gold-medal game they gave Iraq a palpable pride.
They were just some boys from the streets of Iraq but they achieved something that transcended 11 men in shorts running around on a patch of grass. Something in fact that transcended sports itself.
For that reason the Iraqi Olympic soccer team deserves to be named the 2004 Sportsmen of the Year.
Sports Illustrated will announce the 2004 Sportsman of the Year winner on FOX on November 28. Log onto www.SportsIllustrated.CNN.com until then to read more Sportsman picks from SI writers.