Iraqi sprinter embodies the Olympic ideal

Aug. 06, 2008, 10:31 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING(AP) Some athletes have been through far more adversity than others to reach the Beijing Olympics. Iraqi sprinter Dana Hussein is one of them.

A sniper took a potshot at her while she was training in Baghdad. She runs in donated spikes. And all the risks she takes were almost for nothing: A dispute with the International Olympic Committee nearly kept Iraq out of the games.

Triumphs of the human spirit; it's not winning but taking part. Hussein embodies both those sporting ideals. In Beijing, the terrors of Baghdad are being replaced by a new fear: having to measure her speed against the world's best.

She expects to grow through the experience, and overcome her fear, if not win.

How fast can you run? ``I don't know,'' she said Wednesday.

Like the wind? ``I hope so, God willing.''

Hussein is like a desert flower, somehow able to blossom in a hostile environment. Iraqi life, she says, has made her mentally tough. She expects that to help her when she crouches in the blocks and looks down the track - 100 meters that the 21-year-old will need to run faster than ever to get past the first heats.

Her personal best - 11.7 seconds - is slower than the Olympic qualifying standard. The IOC says all four Iraqi athletes in Beijing got special invitations to be here. Although there's been talk in the past of doing away with Olympic wild cards for athletes who don't make the grade, only the hardhearted would argue that the Iraqis should have been locked out.

Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, athletes in various sports have been kidnapped or killed in Iraq. Before that, Saddam's son Odai was in charge of sports and put athletes and players through hell, torturing and jailing those that disappointed or crossed him. Some have spoken of being shackled for days against walls, of beatings, whippings and executions.

And sports in Iraq have shown a rare power to unite amid disunity: Iraqi victory in the prestigious football Asian Cup in 2007 - with one Kurd, one Shiite and one Sunni leading the attack - unleashed a flood of joy.

Given the past, it would have been a crime had the IOC and Iraqi officials not come to their senses and struck a last-minute deal that allowed Iraq to take part in Beijing. Hussein had wept bitterly, head bowed, tears dripping down her nose, when she was first told last month that she and other Iraqis could not compete because the IOC was angry that the Iraqi government had dismissed the country's Olympic Committee and appointed its own body that the IOC would not recognize.

Her coach tried to console Hussein by saying that perhaps she could compete at the London Olympics in 2012.

``In this horrible situation, who can say I'll even be alive in 2012?'' Hussein wailed, in a scene filmed by CNN.

It's not usual in interviews to ask an athlete whether they're afraid of being killed.

Discus thrower Haidir Nasir's reply was a simple ``yes,'' with a faint if weary smile.

The trip from his southern city of Najaf to training camps in Baghdad means taking dangerous roads.

``A lot of my friends, neighbors, people I work with in the sports world have been abducted, hijacked or even killed,'' he said.

For the beefy 27-year-old with stubble, the Olympic goal is to break his own national record.

Rowers Hamza Hussein and Haidar Nozad also had their preparations thrown off-kilter by violence, making it impossible on some days for Nozad to make the 15-minute motorbike ride from his Baghdad home to their training spot on the Tigris River.

Hussein is the only woman on the team. She says she's always loved to run.

``Even when her mum used to ask her to get some stuff from the shops, she would go running for it. It was all built in,'' her translator said.

At age 15, she swept the 100, 200 and 400 in a competition at her Baghdad high school. An Iraqi national coach was there that day and took her under his wing. She switched coaches in 2004 - and they have shared heart-in-the-mouth experiences: the 2006 sniper shooting, being caught up together in what she called a separate ``sporadic attack,'' and mortars bombs landing near her training ground.

``To be able to live and train in Iraq under these circumstances,'' she said, ``you need to be brave.''