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Iraqi Olympians dodge violence and politics on the path to Beijing

A sprinter and an archer – two of the four Iraqis who have qualified so far – struggle to train amid sectarian divides and a dearth of equipment.

By Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 7, 2008

Iraqi Archer: Ali Adnan trained in Baghdad last week for the Olympics Games in Beijing.

Sam Dagher

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It's a glorious spring day and sprinter Dana Hussein Abdul-Razzaq is busy stretching and warming up ahead of her morning training routine. Nearby, under the shade of Baghdad University's leafy trees and giant palms, students of both sexes mingle and chat.

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Normally, the young athlete – one of four Iraqis who have qualified so far for the 2008 Olympics – trains with her coach and her fiancé, also a sprinter, at Shaab Stadium on the edge of Sadr City. But the recent fighting there between militias loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and US and government forces has put the stadium out of reach. So she has turned to the relative normalcy of the university, dodging pockmarks left on the track by past mortar fire and sidestepping areas crushed by tanks.

For Iraqi Olympians, their achievement is a bittersweet moment, the fruit of perseverance in the face of divided and corrupt sports institutions and severe personal risk. Just two weeks ago, the deputy head of Iraq's National Olympic Committee, Raad Jaber, was killed, along with a famed basketball coach and referee, in broad daylight at a central Baghdad bus station. The committee's chief, Ahmed al-Samarraie, has been missing since July 2006, when he was abducted with almost 30 of his colleagues.

Still, Ms. Abdul-Razzaq, who says she does not even have proper running shoes, is undaunted.

"I just shut it all out and keep at it," says the feisty track star, her hair pulled back and several gold charms gleaming around her neck. "You see how horrible this track is – and I am not even allowed to use it."

Indeed, to train on the crumbling facilities at Baghdad University, which is in the relatively safer neighborhood of Jadriyah, Abdul-Razzaq's federation is supposed to pay a monthly subscription of 500,000 dinars ($416).

But it has repeatedly failed to do so. So every time Abdul-Razzaq and her coach come in, they get into a shouting match with the guards – who finally relent and let them in. She says her federation has not even given her needed foot gear and that she's not sure whether her coach, with whom she has been training for five years, will end up accompanying her to Beijing.

Last fall, she was assigned a coach she did not even know at the last minute to accompany her to a training camp in Turkey and then to the Pan-Arab Games, held in Cairo last November.

Abdul-Razzaq says the only way she coped was by remaining in touch with her coach, Yussif Abdul-Rahman, in Baghdad by cellphone.

Dodging sectarianism

In the old days, many athletes say, their greatest horror was that they might upset the head of the Olympic Committee – Saddam Hussein's son Uday – by not performing well or failing to win medals. Athletes were routinely bullied and threatened.