INCHEON South Korea (Reuters) - Speeding cars tear past just meters away, kicking up dust and sand and noise, while the sun beats down remorselessly on the archers standing by the side of the road.
Iraqi archery team captain Mohammed Ali Fayyadh describes the training ‘facilities’ back home then takes a long, wistful look at the carefully manicured lawns of the brand new Gyeyang Asiad Archery venue here in Incheon.
“We do not have a single archery field in our country,” he tells Reuters.
“One time we were training outdoors and the militants began to fight 100 meters away. So we had to stop the training and hide in a bomb shelter to protect ourselves.”
Iraq brought six archers to Incheon for the Asian Games, and while winning a medal was always just a distant dream, the fact that they were able to compete at all must be considered something of a victory.
“Sometimes we train right beside the road ... right next to fast cars driving past. It’s very dangerous but we have no choice,” he told Reuters in an interview.
“Our normal lives in Iraq are very dangerous.”
Sectarian violence continues to rage in Iraq, with the United Nations reporting at least 1,420 people were killed in August alone.
Establishing security and rebuilding the war-torn country had to be the government’s priority but it recognized the need to help sport flourish, said Fayyadh.
“The government wants to support the sport but the situation we have is bad,” he said. “But I think the future of Iraqi archery is bright. We are fighting to continue our training.”
Training in Iraq is far removed from the peaceful surrounds of the Asian Games venue, where lush grass grows underfoot, solid range targets welcome the arrows and fans quiet the noise respectfully for the competitors.
“We train in Sulaymaniyah, which is Kurdish territory so it is relatively safe,” says head coach Vedat Erbay, who competed for Turkey and also coached its national team. “Well, safer than Baghdad anyway.”
Erbay said that while the government paid for equipment, the training itself was very difficult without proper facilities.
“Of course we need this and that but even as a head coach I don’t know how to ask the Iraqi government because, due to the situation there, they are not in a position to take care of us. Or any sport for that matter.”
Rand Al-Mashhadani lost her first round match 7-1 to Japan’s Kaori Kawanaka in the individual recurve event on Friday.
She knew deep down it would take something very special to see her through to the next round, but the 20-year-old never gave up hope.
“Usually my score is better than today, and it was my last game here, but I’m okay,” she told Reuters. “I didn’t expect to win a gold medal here because I know my competitors have many years of experience. But inside I was thinking, ‘I must win!’”
Showing pictures taken on her mobile phone of her road-side training back in Iraq, Al-Mashhadani, whose sister Fatimah is also in Incheon competing in the compound discipline, said she took up archery when she was 13.
Archery is clearly in the blood.
“I think having a father who is the president of the country’s archery federation and a mother who taught us how to shoot has been a great help,” she added.
“Not just in improving my archery skills but also in having inner peace and mental stability.”
Writing by Peter Rutherford; Editing by Greg Stutchbury