BAGHDAD — Nearly a year ago, a sniper shot at Olympic hopeful Dana Hussein as she ran around one of the few jogging tracks in Baghdad. Another time, she and her coach narrowly avoided driving into an ambush and sure death at a checkpoint in the city.
Hussein, 21, is a sprinter and one of a handful of athletes who've already qualified to represent Iraq at the Beijing Olympics this summer, Iraqi sporting officials say.
Her near brushes with death are just some of the challenges she and other athletes face in a country that remains dangerous for everyone.
Except for a bronze medal in weightlifting nearly 50 years ago and a fourth place finish by the soccer team in 2004, Iraq's Olympic feats have been less than remarkable.
In 2004, Iraq sent 24 athletes to Athens to compete, 20 more than in 2000. It remains to be seen how many will compete this year in Beijing. As of a week ago, four including Hussein, had qualified. The soccer team didn't qualify, but there are possibilities not only in track and field but also in weightlifting, wrestling, archery, rowing and boxing, said Tiras Odisho Anwaya, a senior official with Iraq National Olympic Committee.
Still, the chance for success at the games remains small, he says. The Olympic team, like the country as a whole, has a long way to go.
In recent years, Iraqi athletes have recounted the terror and torture at the hands of their longtime sporting director, Uday Hussein, son of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Those athletes who didn't perform to his expectations were beaten, and sometimes they just disappeared.
That certainly hurt the development of Olympic sports and athletes, but eight years of sanctions really set things back, said Anwaya.
Government money went to "tanks, weapons and food," he said. Any money left over went to the soccer team. Sports programs for children and teens died.
These days, there's more money, but facilities and support for athletes remain far less than what they should be to field teams to compete at the international level, Anwaya said.
Tanks ran over one of the running tracks. A gymnasium hasn't been built in years. The ongoing lack of electricity, which all Iraqis deal with, can't keep swimming pools heated.
Swimmers often train at a hotel pool, Anwaya said.
Just as it has touched all Iraqis, the lack of security throughout Iraq has hurt Olympic athletes and hopefuls.
Two years ago, as sectarian violence raged throughout most of the country, soccer coaches resigned because of death threats, a wrestling coach was killed and a tennis coach and two players were gunned down in Baghdad. In the heavily Sunni Anbar province, 15 teenage tae kwon do competitors were abducted and killed. Several were from the Shiite Sadr City neighborhood in Baghdad.
Even Olympic committee officials were kidnapped, and they've yet to be released. There's been no information about the head of the Olympic committee since his kidnapping in July 2006, an Olympic committee spokesman said.
Earlier this year, a cyclist was killed as he returned to his home to grab some luggage before leaving for the airport and a training trip abroad, Anwaya said.
When asked about the targeting of athletes, Anwaya only shrugged.
"They're Iraqis, and the athletes are just like anyone else. The rest of the population suffers from kidnapping, too," he said.
Hussein dropped out of school because the neighborhood became too dangerous to travel.
With a noted 60 percent drop in violence in Baghdad compared with a year ago, the situation has improved, Hussein said. Still, she recalls being shot at as she and two fellow runners circled the track. No one was hit.
"He had a bullet for each of us," she said of the sniper that day.
Recent fighting in parts of Baghdad has made her usual training track off limits. She moved her training to Baghdad University.
These days, there's more money allocated for sports, but not all of it makes its way to the athletes. Throughout the Iraqi government, corruption continues to be an issue.
Athletes are often paid now, about 200,000 dinars ($167) per month, but there remains a feeling that the sporting federations are out of touch and not truly supportive.
Equipment that Hussein has been given hasn't been of good quality, and she's spent her own money to buy training shoes and spikes. Officials only recently began paying attention to her after she placed high at some competitions in the Middle East, she said.
Although there are more than 40 sporting federations, the national soccer team alone takes 60 percent of the budget. "No one gets what they should," Anwaya said.
There's been talk of finding some corporate sponsors, but there aren't many Iraqi businesses with ample resources, Anwaya said.
In the case of track and field, the group received about 700 million dinars ($581,395) this year, but that doesn't cover the athletes' needs, said Dr. Sareeh Abdul Kareem, the group's deputy chairman.
By comparison, a lone sport federation in an Arab Gulf country might receive as much as $40 million annually, Anwaya said.
To prepare for competition and because of a lack of opportunity, Iraqi athletes often must also travel outside the country to attend specialized, high-level training camps.
That can cause problems as well. Hussein has been sent to foreign camps in Turkey and Syria, but without her coach. She thinks she'll be sent to another foreign camp again, perhaps in the United States, Canada or Italy, but is wary of going alone.
"We have a huge talent here, but it's not used," she said.
(McClatchy special correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Jenan Hussein contributed from Baghdad. Lannen writes for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader.)