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BEIJING 2008 : COMMENTARY

Iraqi sprinter still running

August 15, 2008|Mike Downey | Chicago Tribune

Beijing

She isn't coming.

I am sitting here under a red canopy with a Coca-Cola logo (in Chinese) on it, waiting for Iraq's only woman in the Olympics to show up.

Her team leader is here with me, wildly making phone calls, trying to find her.

I make small talk with him, Dr. Tiras Anwaya, the team's chef de mission, a Baghdad university professor. I ask where he went to school.

"Palm Beach Community College," he says.

We are soon joined by Iraq's track coach, Dr. Mohammad Hagami, who has a woman entered in the 100 meters Saturday plus a man in the discus.

I ask whether she stands a chance.

"Mmmm, no," he says.

Dana Abdulrazak is the female Iraqi sprinter. I also have seen her name as Dana Hussein and Hussain. She is Abdulrazak in the Beijing 2008 computer system. And a couple of newspapers have ID'd her as Abdul-Razzaq.

She is 22, with blond streaks in her hair and five rings (how apt) in each ear. Or so those who have seen her up close and personal have said.

"I will call her again," says Anwaya, who has spent 48 hours helping me arrange this face-to-face in the Olympic Village. "She has nowhere to be. This is her day off."

Iraq has four athletes here.

The country was banned by the International Olympic Committee in July but reinstated two weeks before the Games began. A number of Iraqis couldn't regroup in time. Five athletes had to pull out of sports such as archery, weightlifting and judo.

A couple of rowers did make it. I ask how they have done in Beijing so far.

"Better than the Americans," Anwaya quips. (I think.)

In only one Olympics has an Iraqi won a medal -- a weightlifter's bronze in 1960. I am unsure whether this is must-see TV back in Baghdad, where the population has anxieties that extend far beyond any throw of a discus.

Cycling and wrestling coaches were kidnapped. A member of Iraq's Olympic committee was slain. The committee's chairman, abducted in 2006, is still missing. Three tennis players were shot, reportedly for disobeying a command not to go out in public wearing shorts.

So if you hear someone say that sports isn't life or death, well, sometimes it is.

"Where we train," Anwaya says, "we face terrorism every day."

Dana Abdulrazak (I'll go with Beijing's official listing) is a sprinter. She and her coach-fiance, Yussif Abdul-Rahman, have learned how to run and weave and dodge. The track where they train is badly damaged from mortar shells.

They have driven through firefights to get there. They have bribed Shiites and Sunnis alike to let them pass. Abdulrazak has hit the dirt face-first more than once at the sound of sniper fire.

She wept when she heard the IOC had banned Iraq. Told to try again in 2012, she tearfully replied, "Who can say I'll be alive in 2012?"

Baghdad's government had dissolved its National Olympic Committee because of a lack of funds and disappearances and deaths. But once it reorganized, the IOC had a change of heart. It readmitted Iraq in late July.

Team members flew to Kuwait separately and then here Aug. 4 together.

Wearing green and white, each of the nine Iraqi delegates marched into the Bird's Nest stadium for the opening ceremony behind flag-bearer Hamzah Hilfi, a rower, who, at 32, is the team's oldest athlete.

I ask whether they heard the crowd's roar at their entrance.

"We were greatly excited by that," Hagami says.

I ask whether there were athletes from other countries the Iraqi team would like to meet or see compete.

"Well," he says, "your American basketball players, perhaps?"

Oh? Which have you heard of?

"I would think all of them."

We wait for Abdulrazak. She is late for our appointment -- going on two hours late, in fact.

If she is going to get here, she had better get here fast.

Of course, she is fast.

Calls are made. Messengers are sent. Anwaya also gives instructions on what kind of outfits should be worn at the closing ceremony 10 days from now. Hagami is posed a political question and politely demurs.

Anwaya knows athletics. He claims to be a karate black belt. He was born in Iraq but lived for nine years in the U.S. during his youth, including his days in junior college and at the University of South Florida.

This is his fourth Olympics accompanying an Iraqi team.

I ask whether Abdulrazak will do well.

"She will try hard," he says. "But she does not have the right body for a runner."

Honesty appears to have become the best policy. I have been waiting under this canopy in the hot sun for quite a while and now I feel raindrops, so, impatiently, I turn to Hagami and say, "She's not coming, is she?"

"Mmmm, no," he says.

OK. I guess she really does know how to run and dodge and duck.

Anwaya hands me one of the official Olympic lapel pins of Iraq.

I promise to go see Abdulrazak run. It is the least I can do. She already has run for her life.

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