Iraqi sprinter dodged bullets and bombs to get to Games

By Gary Shelton, Times Sports Columnist


If it were not for the international flags in the background, you might have mistaken the young woman for just another shopper at the mall.

She seemed annoyed, walking away from the crowd in order to talk loudly into a glittering golden cell phone. She pushed the cell phone against the three earrings in her left ear, perhaps because it provided improved reception over the five earrings in her right.

Four rings were on her fingers, four silver bangles on her wrist. She wore two silver medals, one with a crescent moon, the other proclaiming the simple word “Nike.” She wore a simple black top, jeans and sneakers. Blond highlights were in her hair, which was pulled back into a blue and white Scrunchie. To the world, she looked like another grad student on a nice afternoon.

No, nothing seemed out of the ordinary here.

There was nothing at all to indicate that the woman on the cell phone, Dana Abdul-Razak, is the fastest woman in all of Iraq.

As much as anything, perhaps that is the lesson the Olympics can offer. As Abdul-Razak raised her voice into the phone, she could have been a 22-year-old woman from anywhere. At the moment, she was not a country, nor an enemy, nor a political system.

In the Olympic Village, in the city of athletes, she was merely the woman who dodged the bullets to get here.

If you grade the athletes for the territory they cover once they arrive, you probably will not notice Abdul-Razak. Faster women are here, and certainly more famous ones. On the other hand, if you measure accomplishment by the difficulty of getting here, she is impressive enough.

Who else had to train on a track that had been scarred by falling bombs? Who else had her fiance pay off Shiite militiamen and Sunni insurgents so she could compete? Who else had a sniper’s bullet strike a nearby tree while she was training?

“Sometimes the bombs fall there, and we train here,” said Mohammad Al-Hagami, the Iraq Olympic coach, pointing to a spot roughly 20 feet in front of him. “We are not afraid from that. It is life in Baghdad.”

“The first time, I was afraid,” said Abdul-Razak, who will compete in the 100 meters Saturday. “Maybe 15 minutes, maybe 20. Then it was no big deal.”

She is a small woman, 5 feet 4 and 123 pounds, but when Abdul-Razak talks, her voice rises as she speaks her native Arabic (translated by Al-Hagami) and you get a glimpse of the toughness it took for her to keep running at her peril.

It has always been difficult for athletes in Iraq. In the old days, athletes were bullied or tortured by Uday Hussein, Saddam’s son, who was Iraq’s top Olympic official.

These days the war has damaged many of the facilities, and the sectarian unrest has left athletes dead or led to their abduction. At Baghdad University, where Abdul-Razak trained before the Iraqi track federation stopped paying her fees, the track looks like the lot of an abandoned drive-in.

“There is no track,” said Tiras Anway, the chef d’mission of the Iraq delegation. “It was destroyed by the war.”

Anway lived in Tampa in 1968-73. For a year, he taught karate as a continuing education course at Eckerd College. He has been to four Olympics. And, yes, he is impressed by Abdul-Razak.

“She’s courageous,” he said. “Despite the problems, she wanted to be here. She has had economic, social and cultural pressures.”

For instance, there were those who did not like that Abdul-Razak trained in shorts. After she spoke of the difficulty of her training to international newspapers, the threats against her increased. Her fiance and personal coach, Yussif Abdul Raman, had to pay so the Shiite militiamen and Sunni insurgents would allow her to train.

“Dana has defeated death,” Abdul Raman told the Christian Science Monitor.

Then again, perhaps she has no choice. “If I leave this sport,” she told National Public Radio, “I think life will stop. As long as I have ambition, maybe I can achieve something for my country.”

Along the way, perhaps she can also achieve something for herself.

“She is a nice girl,” Al-Hagami said. “She is a smart girl, a competitive girl. She needs to have herself a name so the other people in the world know who she is. She needs to rise our flag.”

In a way, it is a surprise that Iraq’s flag is here at all. The International Olympic Committee at first refused to allow Iraq to compete because the country had dissolved its national Olympic committee. The IOC agreed to a compromise 10 days before the opening ceremony. The country sent four athletes, another track and field athlete and two rowers, all men.

“I feel good for our people to watch me,” Abdul-Razak said. “Not Shiites. Not Sunnis. Our people. Our nation. It is good for us to fly our flag here.”

In Iraq, perhaps it will be. The president of the Olympic Committee is a Kurd. Anway is a Christian, Al-Hagami is a Shiite, and Abdul-Razak is a Sunni.

Asked what she thinks of America, Abdul-Razak shook her head.

“I do not wish to speak of politics,” she said.

The message Abdul-Razak has, however, is not about politics. It is about perseverance. It is about similarities, not differences. It is, as Al-Hagami said, about “humanity.”

Perhaps, too, it is also 100 strides toward a better day.

What will it take for Iraq to have a better Olympic team?

“First of all,” Anway said, “you need peace.”