Sat, Mar 27, 2004 - Page 18 News List

Iraqi athlete looks ahead to taking part in Olympics and living her dreams

REUTERS , Baghdad

Ask Iraqi Rasha Yassin if she follows a special diet as part of her Olympic training and she just laughs.

"Of course not," she says. "Do you think that athletes who are training here can afford a special diet? Most of them are from poor families and have to work to support their families."

Dilapidated facilities and widespread suspicion of female athletes are among the other hurdles on the road to Athens for the 18-year-old middle-distance runner.

"Look around you, we don't have any proper equipment. I don't work out because we don't have a gym," the tall, lean high-school student told Reuters during a break in training in Baghdad.

"I keep telling foreign competitors: 'If we had a tenth of what you had, there would a big difference in our performance'," she said.

At one point last year, the administrators of the capital's Athletic Training College closed their grounds to athletes and Yassin had to run in the streets, enduring disapproving glances and catcalls from passers-by in a society which takes a conservative view of women in sport.

"People would give me all kind of unwelcome attention," Yassin said. "But we shouldn't stop because of backward people, even if they are the majority in the society."

As Iraqi champion in the 400 and 800 meters, Yassin is a strong candidate to represent her country in August and is determined to make a name for herself at the Games.

She comes from a family of athletes; her mother is a former Arab track-and-field champion and two of her sisters are also runners.

Yassin exudes confidence, but recognises the immense disadvantages faced by Iraqis preparing for the Olympics in the wake of last year's US-led war.

At the training college in Baghdad, the running tracks are potholed and cracked, high jumpers have no mattresses to break their fall and have to make do with a large piece of sponge, and old pieces of metal and wood are used as makeshift hurdles.

But despite the difficulties, Iraqi athletes say the fall of Saddam Hussein has freed them from intimidation.

The Iraqi National Olympic Committee was once part of Saddam's apparatus of fear, and run by his widely hated son Uday.

Uday, killed along with his brother Qusay in a United States raid in Mosul last July, was reviled as a notorious playboy, and maintained a jail and torture chamber in the Olympic Committee headquarters building.

Athletes said they were tortured if they were thought to have performed poorly.

Now, they can compete without fear of punishment.

"At least this time, there won't be any secret police officer instructing us what to say and what to do," said Jabar Hussein, Yassin's coach.

"Athletes are more motivated now, they are participating in more events outside the country, which gives them better interaction with the outside world."

Hussein does not have high hopes that Iraqis will return from Athens with medals.

But he says the important thing is to take part and gain experience that will help in future competitions after years of isolation.

"For us the most important thing is to participate. We know very well that we can't compete with the world's best athletes. We don't have any equipment, and we haven't even been paid our salaries," he said.

"Before, it took us 30 days to get the permission to participate in an event.

Most of the time we would just miss the race. If Uday didn't sign the papers no-one could do anything."

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