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Guns n' roses: Wars won't stop them

Given the precarious situation and paucity of facilities in war-torn countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, it is remarkable that any athletes are able to pursue Olympic dreams.
By HT Correspondent | AFP, Singapore
UPDATED ON JUL 18, 2008 01:58 AM IST

Given the precarious situation and paucity of facilities in war-torn countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, it is remarkable that any athletes are able to pursue Olympic dreams.

Yet despite the hardships, all three countries will be represented at the Beijing Olympics, alongside competitors from other unstable nations including the Palestinian territories and Sudan.

Iraq sent a handful of athletes to the Athens Games in 2004, including a boxer, a judoka, a football team and two runners.

The football team surprisingly made the bronze medal playoff, losing to Italy in a rare moment of joy for the ravaged country, but they failed to make the grade this time round.

Iraqis love their sport and given the unlikely scenario of their athletes qualifying for Beijing, the International Olympic Committee handed out five “wild-card” entries.

In total Iraq is sending a team of six athletes under the Olympic flag in lieu of their own after a spat with the International Olympic Committee in June led to the suspension of Iraq’s Olympic committee.

The country’s athletes have not been spared from the bloodshed affecting the lives of Iraq’s 25 million people. With more than 100 killed since the 2003 US-led invasion, weightlifter Sawara Mohammed was the only athlete to legitimately qualify.

Five other first time Olympians going to Beijing — two rowers, a discus thrower, a sprinter and a judoka — are the hopes for the war-blighted country.

“I just hope that my level of readiness will be good enough so that Iraqis can rejoice, as sport has become the only outlet for enjoyment in this country,” said Mohammed, who will compete in the 67 kilogram category.

Given that Somalia has been wracked by violence since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991 and millions of people face hunger due to acute food shortages, training athletes is far down the list of priorities.

But two runners will be in Beijing. Samiyo Yusuf, a woman in her early 20s, has been training strenuously as the African country’s sole female competitor. Abdinasir Saeed, also a runner who trains alongside Yusuf in a dilapidated old sports stadium in the capital Mogadishu, is the sole male Somali athlete.

Both have high hopes that she will bring success to their country.

“We are hopeful that we will succeed in the events we will take part in Beijing,” Yusuf, who will run in the 400m and 800m, said.

Saeed, who will participate in the 5,000m and 10,000m, said he felt the weight of responsibility but was determined to succeed.

“I know being the only male athlete representing the country carries huge responsibility and there is a lot expected of me,” he said.

“I will try to do my best to raise the name of my country.”

Somalia has had an Olympic Committee since 1959 tasked with developing sports, but insecurity over the past two decades has destroyed much of the infrastructure.

Like other countries in conflict, the Palestinean territories has few facilities to boast about, but has athletes on the plane to Beijing.

They had two representatives in Sydney in 2000, three in Athens in 2004, with four bound for China.

Hamza Abdu and Zakaya Nassar will be competing in the 'Ice Cube' swimming pool despite not having any Olympic standard 50-metre pools to train in at home. Distance runner Nader Al Masri and sprinter Ghadeer Ghroof make up the team.

Afghanistan was initially going to send four competitors — one woman and three men — but the only female has disappeared.

Radio Free Afghanistan said 19-year-old Mahbooba Ahadyar, a middle-distance runner due to become the first Afghan woman ever to compete in the Olympics, went missing from a training camp in Italy on July 4.

The broadcaster, which spoke to her the day before she absconded, said she was worried about death threats from extremists in Afghanistan who oppose the idea of women competing in sports.

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