Athletics: Alaa Hikmat Jassim (Iraq) Eliminated in the 100m heats yesterday

Out of the warzones: a tale of two sprinters

When the starting gun fired to begin race seven in the first-round heats of the women's 100 metres yesterday, Alaa Hikmat Jassim rose from her blocks to see her seven rivals haring down the track ahead of her.

The young Iraqi gathered her composure and ran her own race, crossing the finish line in 12.70 seconds - 1.56 seconds behind Vida Anim of Ghana and Christine Arron of France, who dead-heated for first place. When the result flashed up on the Olympic Stadium's electronic scoreboard, Ms Jassim was officially classified eighth and last.

But in the wider scheme of things, considering what she had endured to get to the Athens Olympics, she had achieved a considerable victory.

Jassim is an 18-year-old student from Baghdad. She lives in a house with a corrugated iron roof and limited water supply. She has dodged gun battles and bombings in the streets nearby, often on her way to train at al-Kishafa Stadium in Baghdad, where her starting "blocks" are holes hewn in the dirt track.

She wears second-hand running shoes given to her on a training trip to Jordan. Her father died five years ago of a heart attack. Her mother lost her job as a school teacher after an altercation with Saddam Hussein's regime.

"Baghdad is a very difficult city to live in," Jassim said, en route to the changing rooms. "Training in Baghdad is very difficult, too. When the bombing started I went six to eight months without running. I started again in March. When there are problems on the street, you cannot go to the track."

Jassim is Iraq's only female competitor in Athens. She needs no reminding of the signficance of her appearance in the Olympic spotlight. "This is the most important day of my life," she said. "I have proved Iraqi people can do anything - not just in sport. I did this for the Iraqi people - not just for the women, for everyone in my country.

"The Iraqi people must believe. All of us have suffered but we must do everything we can, even if we have had difficulties."

Asked whether she agreed with the invasion of her country, Jassim replied, with the help of an interpreter: "Removing Saddam was a good idea, but the war was a bad idea. Everything has a price. The price the Iraqi people are paying is high." She said she had no idea if she would have been in Athens had Saddam remained in power.

After eight races had been run, Jassim was the 52nd fastest of 63 competitors. Given her struggles, it was probably one of the most impressive performances of the day.

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