BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi sprinter Dana Abdul-Razzaq has dodged bullets to pursue her love of running, her determination to succeed pushing her to become Iraq’s only female athlete at the Beijing Olympics.
Few athletes will have faced the obstacles 21-year-old Abdul-Razzaq has overcome to reach Beijing, from a sniper’s bullets to a paucity of adequate training facilities and religious and cultural opposition to female athletes.
“I love running, I have the persistence to keep practicing and I have ambition despite all the problems that I face,” she told Reuters at Baghdad’s crumbling Shaab stadium.
Last October, Abdul-Razzaq was training with coach Yousif Abdul-Rahman at central Baghdad’s Jadriya oval track before the Arab Games when a sniper opened fire nearby.
“She was dodging the bullets like in action movies,” Abdul-Rahman recalled.
“She ducked to miss a bullet which hit a tree.”
Abdul-Razzaq’s memories of the incident are slightly less heroic. “After it was over, I fainted,” she said.
“I was back practicing half an hour later, but we used the other side of the playing field,” she said.
Another time, gunmen opened fire as the pair drove home from training through Saidiya, one of southern Baghdad’s most dangerous districts.
“My coach told me to lie down and he drove at very high speed,” Abdul-Razzaq said. “I was crying but I survived, thank God. I didn’t tell my parents about it.”
Such violence has become a part of everyday life for Iraqis, with tens of thousands killed in an insurgency and sectarian violence between majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Muslims since the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein five years ago.
Having survived the gunmen’s bullets, Abdul-Razzaq went on to set a new Iraqi record for the 200 meters, running a time of 24.80 seconds at the Arab Games in Cairo last November to lower the previous mark by almost 0.3 of a second. She came fourth in the race overall.
Her efforts have been rewarded with a ticket to Beijing, courtesy of one of five “wild card” entries given to Iraq by the International Olympic Committee, saving her the trouble of direct qualification.
She will compete in the 100 meters and 200 meters events, a dream come true after only taking up running six years ago when she was in secondary school. She has since won more than a dozen medals at Arab and west Asian competitions.
“I am very happy because I feel that the fruit of all my hard work is the Olympics,” she said.
Last year, the Iraqi Olympic Committee said 104 athletes, coaches, administrators and referees had been killed since 2003. The number of missing Olympic officials stood at 22, including the then head of the Olympic Committee who was kidnapped with several others in July 2006. Their fate is still unknown.
Iraq’s Olympics contingent has not yet been finalized but the field and track union are sending Abdul-Razzaq and another athlete after receiving two wild cards.
Abdul-Razzaq trains twice a day, six days a week, each session lasting three or four hours. The facilities are basic, to say the least.
Dressed modestly in a black-and-white tracksuit, she begins each session with stretches and limbers up with a light jog under the watchful eye of coach Abdul-Rahman.
Water seeps over the edge of the running track at the pre-Saddam Hussein Shaab stadium as her fiance — who asked not to be identified — runs by her side. Bare flagpoles and cracked concrete stands ring the field as other would-be Olympians do sprint training.
“It is the only stadium that is suitable for practicing, it is better than nothing,” said Abdul-Razzaq.
Facilities at the Jadriya field are even worse, the surface ruined by U.S. Humvee military vehicles during the invasion.
Abdul-Razzaq will go to Beijing with nothing like the support other athletes receive from their legion of doctors, nutritionists, masseuses and other specialists provided by national sporting federations.
“I’m supposed to have a masseuse, I suffer from muscle spasms every day,” she said.
“I should have a doctor do a specific nutrition programme. I feel dizzy right now because my training is so hard and I do not follow a specific diet.”
There are no gyms made available to her by Iraqi athletic authorities, so she often pays her own way into public gyms for the strength training she needs.
“From all sides, I am restricted,” she says.
She been offered training programmes outside Iraq but has turned them down because her athletics union would not allow her coach to accompany her. However, they hope to be able to travel and train together before the Olympics begin in August.
Her family encourages her to keep going — her father was a former national cyclist and her brother is a bodybuilder — but there are many in religiously conservative Iraq who think she should not compete.
“There are people who encourage the sport but there are traditions and conventions which say it is difficult for a girl to travel and run, she should stay at home,” Abdul-Razzaq said.
“But I am not doing something wrong or haram (forbidden for Muslims).”
Coach Abdul-Rahman is with her every step of the way, helping her overcome the dangers and difficulties of being an athlete in Iraq.
“I cannot say she will win a medal in the Olympics, it is difficult, but at least we are developing ourselves,” he said.
“We might get close to the others, or break the Iraqi record. This would be considered an achievement.”
Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile