Road to Athens lined with land mines
For those representing war-torn countries, training can mean risking bombs and bullets to reach the stadium, and making do without the barest essentials of equipment and coaching.
A swimmer who sat idle for months because U.S. soldiers took over the pool where he trained. A judo player who practices in a small room because she can't go out in public without a veil. A runner who jogs on the sand because the streets are too dangerous.
The road to Athens is tough for any athlete, but for some it is lined with land mines. For those representing war-torn countries, training can mean risking bombs and bullets to reach the stadium, and making do without the barest essentials of equipment and coaching.
But many say the adversity they face has strengthened their resolve to push themselves to the limit.Some even dare to dream of a medal. "All people who live a hard life can do good things," said Palestinian swimmer Raad Aweisat, 17.
"People who have everything just go to sleep. You must make yourself by yourself." Many athletes have followed that philosophy.
Friba Razayee, 18, describes herself as "the only girl in all of Afghanistan who loves boxing," but since she didn't have a coach she tried her hand at judo. One year later, she is about to become an Olympian.
Razayee grew up under the Taliban regime, which beat women who didn't wear the all-enveloping burqa in public and didn't let girls go to school. Things are better now, but Razayee said she still can't do any aerobic training.
"Still it is not allowed for women to run on the streets," she said. "Running is important for any sport, but people would bother me." And so she trains in a room with a foreign coach _ and, in a shocker, with male judoists _ and tries to ignore her neighbours' disapproval.
"My family says, `You're doing a good thing. Don't worry about what people say,"' she said. Now that she plans to carry the Afghan flag at Friday's opening ceremony, she said things are changing. "People in Afghanistan are very proud of me now," Razayee said. "I hope I can be an example for them so women can play sports in Afghanistan."
Swimmer Mohammed Abbas, 26, had a different problem with his training regimen: He had to spend a month cowering in his house while bombs rained down on Baghdad, and when the war ended U.S. troops commandeered the pool where he trains for soldiers' R&R in the hot Iraqi summer. Abbas said the troops eventually pulled out and workers began to repair the looted swimming facility, which they renamed Freedom Pool. He resumed his training and made it to Athens, flying out of Iraq aboard an Australian air force jet because the roads are still too dangerous.
Abbas has no illusions about his chances to medal, but says things might be different if he had had a couple of years with the right facilities.
"If you look at the American swimmers, they are very good," he said. "Maybe I need two years training there to compete." Gaza Strip residents horrified by the sight of Sanaa Abu Bkheet running down the street in shorts threw stones at her, and Israeli security measures made it impossible for her to get to a proper track, so she trained barefoot on a sand path.
She came to Athens to run in the 800-meter event, but said she has spent most of her time getting used to running in spikes _ and on asphalt.
"I know of other athletes who trained for four years for the Olympics. I trained only one month," she said. "It was so difficult to run on the sand. It is very soft and your feet can sink down. It is difficult to change from sand to the track."
Nonetheless, the athletes say adversity breeds strength. Iraqi judoist Haidar Ali Lazem, 29, is counting on it.
He was invited to train in Japan for two weeks before coming to Athens, and said he was shocked to find that judo mats have springs in them.
"At home I use an old gym, without air conditioning and without enough equipment," he said. "At the same time I pushed myself to train because of the Olympic Games. I will do my best, and when you see the match you can decide."I want to prove that Iraq is back in shape," he added. "I think this is a good place to prove that." Aweisat, the Palestinian swimmer, trained in a backyard pool with no heating, covered with a tin roof to prevent the Israelis from spotting it.