It was just before 11am local time yesterday when the athlete in lane seven settled down into her starting blocks in race two of the women's 100m first-round heats in the Beijing National Stadium. Wearing a plain white T-shirt and cycling shorts, Dana Abdulrazak could have passed for a mid-morning jogger or even a school sports-day sprinter, had it not been for the five-ringed Olympic logo stamped on to the number (2055) pinned to her top.
Ahead of her, as she glanced up, was the home straight of the Bird's Nest arena. Behind her was a perilous journey that very nearly claimed her life. Slow to rise from the blocks, Abdulrazak battled all the way to the line, her arms punching away in a style more reminiscent of the boxing ring. The fight in her took her past two rivals. She finished sixth in 12.36sec, a full second behind Christine Arron, Europe's fastest-ever woman, but the letters PB flashed up on the scoreboard next to her name.
"This is not correct," she stressed, speaking deep in the bowels of the stadium, which was filled to its 91,000 capacity for a Saturday-morning track session comprising mainlyheats. "I have run faster. I amnot happy with my time. There were two false starts and that unsettled me. But I am very happy and very proud to be here at the Olympic Games. It has not been easy to get here. It is very difficult for me to run in Iraq."
That would be one way of putting it. During one training session on the mortar-scarred track at Baghdad University, Abdulrazak was fired at by a sniper. The shot missed her by an inch. "I wasn't killed because, thank God, I happened to be running at the time," she reflected.
It was not the only close call as the 21-year-old pursued her Olympic dream in her war-torn homeland. "There were severalassassination attempts on our way home – car bombs and explosions," her coach, Yousif Abdel-Rahman, said. "Many times when we were driving home we were followed by gunmen who started shooting at us. It was Dana's insistence that pushed me to continue working with her. She is a brave girl."
Abdulrazak said: "I just shut it all out and kept at it." As she spoke, the other female speed merchants filed past clutching designer sporting bags. Abdulrazak was holding a paper shopping bag. "It is not a big deal that I am wearing this," she said, tugging at her T-shirt. "This is normal in Iraq. We do not have a national team vest."
In Iraq, they do not have a nation as such, she might have added of a land riven by sectarian conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims since the US-led invasion of 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein's regime. "We cut deals with Shiite militiamen and Sunni insurgents just so I can pick her up for training," Abdel-Rahman said. It is a conflict that coach and athlete hope their efforts can transcend. Abdel-Rahman is a Sunni, Abdulrazak a Shiite. The pair are engaged to be married.
Their partnership has blossomed against a background of Iraqi sporting figures being targeted by terrorists. More than 30 athletes, coaches and officials have been victims. A dozen members of the national taekwondo team were found dead last year after being kidnapped on a highway in Anbar Province. Four members of the former Iraqi Olympic Committee, including the president, Ahmed al-Samrrai, were kidnapped two years ago and have not been heard of since.
When Saddam was in power, his son Uday was in charge of the National Olympic Committee. He tortured athletes who underperformed.
It was only the week before the Games began that Abdulrazak and three fellow countrymen (two rowers and an archer) were given the go-ahead to compete in Beijing after the International Olympic Committee lifted the ban imposed on Iraq.
"Participation in the Olympics means a lot to me, because I am representing an entire country, not just myself," Abdulrazak reflected. "I cried for two-and-a-half hours when I heard on television that we were banned from the Games.
"When I learned we were going to come here after all, my happiness was indescribable. The Olympic Games are beautiful."