For Iraqi and Afghan Olympians, victory is just being there
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Afghanistan's top female sprinter, Robina Muqimyar, has had training challenges too: She was allowed into the Kabul stadium only twice a week, when it was closed to men. The rest of the time she trained on her school's basketball court, because she could not run in public.Skip to next paragraph
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In Iraq, Ala Hikmat, who will run the women's 100 meters in Athens, could get to a stadium, but she trained in secondhand sneakers. And to avoid firefights on the way home, she had to be careful to leave the stadium before dark.
No question, these are not ideal circumstances in which to prepare for the Olympics. "Most competitors have top medical facilities and training facilities for several years before ever being considered for the Olympic team," says Stig Traavik, a Norwegian diplomat who has been working with the Afghan National Olympic Committee. "The [Afghan] athletes have been training seriously with professionals for [only] several months."
Inevitably, it shows. Massoud Azizi, a 100-meter specialist, runs the distance in 11.03 seconds, a good second slower than the probable winning time in Athens. "There is a big gap between my time and the others, but I didn't have the same resources as they did," he points out.
A number of countries have helped out. The Afghan Olympic competitors trained for several weeks with Iranian coaches in Tehran. Canada hosted two Iraqi swimmers, Rashid did tae kwon do training in South Korea, and the US Boxing Federation took an Iraqi boxer under its wing.
At the same time, the International Olympic Committee has spent money from its Solidarity Fund, channeling some TV revenues to athletes in countries where they need help. The Iraqi soccer squad and an Iraqi weight lifter qualified for the Games on their own merits. The runners and swimmers for both countries are there under a program that allows every nation to send one man and one woman to represent it in athletics and swimming.
The other athletes from these countries are in Athens on special - and rare - IOC invitations. "We don't want to allow just any athlete to take part," says IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies. "But the whole philosophy behind the Olympic movement is its universality."
Thus Rashid was invited because he managed to beat the reigning tae kwon do world champion in qualifiers last year, even though he did not make the final cut. And Afghan boxer Basharmal Sultani was invited: He needed to come in second in the Asian qualifiers for his weight, but managed only third place.
Still, these athletes bring a special dimension to the Games. Muqimyar may not medal in her event, "but the fact that she is here is courageous and inspiring," says Said Mahmood Zia Dashti, head of the Afghan National Olympic Committee. "She is trying, and I am proud of her for that."
• Orly Halpern in Baghdad and Halima Kazem in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this story.