On the mat, Haidar Ali Lazem doesn't fear much. Iraq's Olympic hopeful judo has won 13 championships and dreams of winning a medal in Athens.
Off the mat is another story.
While other Olympic athletes worry about eating right, getting enough rest and tweaking their training regimes, Lazem and the 30 other Iraqis who will compete in the Athens Games spend a fair bit of time worrying about getting shot, or worse.
They are private worries, he says, ones he doesn't like to discuss often.
"We're athletes," said Lazem, the 29-year-old heavyweight judo contender. "If it was easy, then there would be no challenge.
"I don't like to complain," said Lazem, who began practicing judo at age 8. "But things could be better."
Lazem broke away from the conversation to return to his training, first stretching and then grasping the collar of his partner Udai Tarek Hassan for the start of their grappling session. Within minutes, both men, and Lazem's trainer, were drenched in sweat as they practiced foot sweeps and hip-tosses. But the sweat wasn't because of the workout _ at least not yet.
Instead of cool air, the vents that ringed the enclosed basketball court where Lazem trained alongside five members of the National Boxing team, brought in steaming air well over 40 degrees Celsiun (110 Fahrenheit) and filled with some of the city's ripe pollutants.
In recent days, top government officials have been assassinated, car bombs have killed dozens, and gunbattles have broken out in the streets.
Fears of that violence have replaced other fears athletes had under the previous regime.
Under Saddam Hussein's government, his older son, Udai, ran the Olympic Committee and meted out dire punishments, including torture, to athletes who disappointed him. The luckier losers just had their heads shaved.
Iraqi Olympic officials are well aware of the adversity their athletes endure in a bid to bring national pride to a country emerging from the cloud of dictatorial rule and war.
"There's no question that these athletes have a lot to deal with that others don't," said Amer Abdel-Jabbar, assistant to the secretary general of the Iraqi Olympic Committee. "These are difficult times for the country, and it's hard for them to concentrate on their training when they're worried about getting back home early because of the security situation here."
Iraqi officials have arranged training abroad for some of the country's hopefuls. Lazem went to train in Japan _ the birthplace of judo _ while boxer Najah Ali Salah is training in the United States. The two track and field competitors are in Germany and Jordan, while the weightlifter is in Egypt and the taekwondo competitor in South Korea. The 24 member-strong soccer team also trained abroad.
"We wanted to send them to training camps in the most appropriate locations. Korea obviously is strong in taekwondo and the United States turns out great boxers," said Abdel-Jabbar, explaining why these countries were selected.
Lazem said the overseas training camp is something that will help him gain valuable experience.
He hopes to turn that experience into a medal for Iraq in its first Olympic Games since the collapse of Saddam's regime.
"Everything is possible," he said. "I'm hoping to bring one back for Iraq. But I think also that our being there as a new country is a victory in of itself."
The host countries are footing much of the bill for the Iraqi athletes.
With Iraq struggling to recover from the war and years of neglect and sanctions, sports are simply not the top priority.
Lazem and some of the boxers lack protective gear. Three of the five boxers were working out in cross-trainers instead of the lightweight boxing boots that support their ankles. In judo, footwear is one less worry.
Boxer Bartham Naji, who won the 75 kilogram division of the Arab Cup in June, says their stipends and subsidies have been halved compared to what they were getting under the previous regime.
"It's not great. But at least we don't have to worry about any reprisals now," said Naji, 20, before returning to spar with his teammate.
Iraqi official said they are doing the best they can.
"We're not cheap, but we're still a long way from the necessary government funding and corporate sponsorships that pay for these teams," Abdel-Jabbar says.
"These are our athletes, our representatives and we have to honor them," he said. "But this country needs a lot to bring it back on its feet. You have to prioritize."
"ATHENS 2004: For Iraqi Olympians, security worries just another hurdle on the road to the games." America's Intelligence Wire 26 July 2004. General OneFile. Web. 28 Oct. 2009.
United States Judo Association - USJA
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