Iraqi Sprinter Dodges Wartime Obstacles to Train Dana Hussein, one of four Iraqis who have qualified for this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing, has had to deal with sniper fire and sectarian violence just to practice. She is the only Iraqi training for the games inside the country.
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Iraqi Sprinter Dodges Wartime Obstacles to Train

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Iraqi Sprinter Dodges Wartime Obstacles to Train

Iraqi Sprinter Dodges Wartime Obstacles to Train

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In Iraq, wearing frayed running shoes, Danna Hussein dodges sniper fire, sectarian killings, and occasional car bombs as she trains. The Iraqi sprinter is preparing to face the finest athletes in the world.

The 21-year-old is one of just four Iraqis who've qualified so far for the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing. And she is the only Iraqi currently training for the summer games inside the war-torn country.

From Baghdad, NPR's Eric Westervelt has her story.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Clouds of dust blow over the weed-choked quarter-mile track at Baghdad University. In the stifling noon heat, sprinter Dana Hussein lays a bath towel in the dirt and begins to stretch under a tree.

Nearby, her coach, Yousif Abdul-Rahman, nervously twirls a stopwatch. He recalls a training session during the height of the sectarian bloodshed when he and Dana had to drive across Sunni-Shiite battle lines to try to reach the track.

Mr. YOUSIF ABDUL-RAHMAN (Dana Hussein's Coach): (Through translator) I think we drove through eight firefights that day. I thought we were going to die.

WESTERVELT: The violence one day even encroached here on this rundown track in the relatively safe Jadriyah neighborhood. Abdul-Rahman says both he and Dana had to hit the dirt. A sniper opened fire from a nearby rooftop.

Mr. ABDUL-RAHMAN: (Through translator) When she was training, the sniper shot the first round and it crossed near Dana and hit the tree. She dove for cover. Then another round hit the field.

WESTERVELT: It might seem impossible, but Dana Hussein says she tries to tune out Baghdad's turmoil and focus on running.

Ms. DANA HUSSEIN (Iraqi Sprinter): (Through translator) I'm very ambitious, despite all the challenges I face in the streets. If the street is blocked or there's shooting, I'll take a different road, because I want to reach new goals and move forward.

WESTERVELT: Hussein pulls her black hair into a ponytail, thin gold bracelets dangling from her wrists. She says qualifying for the Olympics in the 100 and 200-meter dash is bittersweet.

Ms. HUSSEIN: (Through translator) I want to train now and cry at the same time. I'm happy because I qualified and will represent my country. But the problem - it's so hot here, and there is no training camp abroad for me. Sometimes I can't make it here to train because of the security situation.

WESTERVELT: Hussein comes from a sports-loving family. Her brother is a bodybuilder. Her father was a champion bicycle racer with the Iraqi national team.

Hussein steps into the searing 105 degree heat and onto the university's ragged track, parts of which have ankle-twisting cracks and crevices in the asphalt. She puts on her special track-and-field sprinter's sneakers - one running shoe is badly ripped along the seams - and begins to warm up.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

WESTERVELT: The Iraqi Olympic Committee was once run by Saddam Hussein's sadistic son Uday, who would famously abuse athletes who didn't perform well. Nowadays the committee is no longer a bastion of brutality, but it is broke, sectarian, politicized, and its members are regular targets. Just a few weeks ago the deputy director of Iraq's Olympic committee was gunned down at a Baghdad bus station. The Olympic committee's director and some 30 employees were kidnapped in the summer of 2006; they're still missing.

The three other Iraqis who've qualified for the Beijing games, all men, are currently training overseas. The committee promised Hussein a training camp abroad; so far it hasn't materialized. Now she says it's probably too late.

Ms. HUSSEIN: (Through translator) The Olympic committee cannot do anything to provide me a training camp. They gave me one in Italy one time, but they made me go without my trainer and coach. I prefer to just train here with my coach than to go abroad without him.

WESTERVELT: The track clothes the committee gave Hussein didn't fit. She's had to sew the Iraqi flag onto running outfits she bought with her own money.

Ms. HUSSEIN: (Through translator) If I leave this sport, I think life will stop. Life must continue, even with the security situation so bad, because I have ambitions. I love this sport too much.

WESTERVELT: Last summer the Iraqi soccer team's improbable win at the Asian Cup brought the shattered country together, at least for a fleeting instant. The Iraqi sprinter knows that she's a long shot to medal in Beijing. As long as I have my ambition, Hussein says confidently, maybe I can achieve something for my country.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Baghdad.

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