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Iraqi javelin thrower aims to get her life back on track

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The old disappointments seemed to dissolve as Hamdiya Ahmed stepped onto the practice field this week at Baghdad University. With a prim tug at her headscarf and a mumbled prayer, she charged forward and yelled "Allah!" as her javelin sailed through the air to lodge in the distant ground.

Everything in Ahmed's life is about distance. How far she's come after two decades as a lifeguard for Saddam Hussein. How far she has to go to resurrect a dream crushed by dictatorship.

Nearly 50 years old and blind in one eye, Ahmed will compete against women half her age and in much better shape for the chance to represent Iraq at the Athens Olympic Games in August. If the International Olympic Committee lifts the suspension that was imposed after Saddam's regime collapsed in April, Ahmed could join dozens of other hopefuls whose sports programs suffered from years of war and neglect.

"Sports are my life and soul," Ahmed said, sweating underneath her tracksuit and Islamic scarf. "I cried so many tears watching the women champions on TV and knowing I could beat them. This chance is not just for me. It's for all Iraqi athletes."

At 28, Ahmed was a master swimmer, an accomplished equestrian, a javelin record-holder and the queen of Iraq's basketball courts. She had traveled throughout Asia and the Middle East, winning medals and molding her body for the Olympics. Instead, Saddam turned one of his country's most promising female athletes into a lifeguard at a palace swimming pool, where she remained until Baghdad fell last spring.

These days, Ahmed hits the practice field three times a week to make up for what she calls the "lost years." After two decades in which her only training was throwing poles she stashed in a poolside cabana, she's determined to win a spot on the national women's javelin team at a tournament in March. If she qualifies, she could be eligible to compete at the Olympics.

U.S.-led bombing raids destroyed the offices of Iraq's former Olympic committee, which was overseen by Saddam's notorious son Odai. Several star athletes who endured torture after losing games under the old regime fled and haven't returned. In May, the IOC's ethics commission voted to dissolve the Iraqi National Olympic Committee and form one without ties to the Baath Party.

A new president was elected last month with promises to reshape Iraqi sports programs and to take wrestlers, swimmers, boxers, gymnasts and other athletes to the Olympics. The IOC is organizing training camps to help teams prepare for the games.

Ahmed started her own training regimen a month after the war ended and said her throwing arm is now stronger than ever. She recently pitched her best distance yet—50 meters, still about 20 meters short of the women's javelin world record.

At home in Baghdad, Ahmed lifts weights and works out on a dilapidated rowing machine. She hurls heavy steel balls across the street to strengthen her upper body and laughs as neighborhood children pick through the garbage-strewn lot in a race to fetch them for her.

When she gets discouraged, she gazes at the tarnished silver trophies that cover an entire shelf. She delicately opens her boxes of gold medals imprinted with Saddam's smiling face. She proudly shows visitors the black-and-white photos hanging in her living room. There's one of Ahmed leaning into the wind, her horse in mid-jump over white hurdles. Another from the 1970s shows Ahmed, somber-faced in jodhpurs and riding boots, among a crowd of smiling, young Iraqi equestrians.

Ahmed always chose sports over traditional pursuits of marriage and family. Her father, a champion rower, and her brother, an accomplished bodybuilder, encouraged her rigorous exercises in preparation for Olympics qualifiers. But a visit by Saddam's henchmen in 1983 abruptly changed her course.

The men had demanded that the youth minister choose the nation's best female athlete to send to work in the palace, Ahmed recalled. The minister offered other names, but Ahmed was the final choice. Heartbroken, she wept and refused to go.

"They came back and threatened me," she said. "They told me, 'If you don't come, Saddam will send his bodyguards and they will kill you.' "

What followed were 20 miserable years of watching the giggling wives of Saddam's cronies and diving in when their children ventured too deep in the palace pool. The president also was fond of swimming, she said, and often asked her to test the water for him.

To keep in shape, she sometimes sneaked away to the Tigris River for a few laps or grabbed poles from a cabana and practiced throwing when the pool was closed. She never stopped crying when the television showed female athletes celebrating a victory.

"I dreamed of beating them," she said. "But I was working from morning to night, with no time to train."

Having given up her Olympic dreams, Ahmed finally married at 38. Her husband, a welder and family friend, couldn't win her hand until he promised to support her sports. Kadhim Mortada said he underestimated his wife's determination until the day he watched her flip a woman on her back in an arm-wrestling match.

"She would only marry me if she could keep playing," said Mortada, now 54. "That was her only condition. How could I say no?"

Ahmed and her husband moved into one of the dingy houses on the compound reserved for permanent workers at the palace. They never had children and Ahmed never stopped imagining herself on the national team. Her heart leaped, she said, when poolside gossip turned to war last year.

With other palace workers, Ahmed fled the compound when bombs began to fall on Baghdad. A month after the war's end, with her country in turmoil and American soldiers living in the palace where she had worked, Ahmed bought a new javelin. While many Iraqi women still don't venture outside their homes, Ahmed is at the track every other day.

"I'm ready to throw day and night to make it to Athens," Ahmed said at the field. With those words, she leaped up, reared back and hurled another javelin. Squinting in the sunshine, she judged her distance.

Not far enough, she decided.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Hamdiya Ahmed

Iraq

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