An Iraqi sprinter whose coach had to bribe militiamen so she could train. A Palestinian swimmer unable to use the Olympic-size pool nearest her home. A pioneering runner from war-wracked Afghanistan who placed last in the 100 meters.
No medals await athletes like these, from beleaguered nations with scant sports resources. In some cases, their compatriots back home received only sketchy accounts — if any — about their performances.
Yet out of the spotlight, most of these long shots savor their Olympic moments as gratefully as any champion.
“It has been my dream,” said the Palestinian swimmer, Zakia Nassar, after posting a 50-meter time nearly eight seconds off the pace in the early heats. “It’s fine to be here.”
She is one of two women on the four-member Palestinian team, along with sprinter Ghadir Ghurouf. Dubbed “The Gazelle of Jericho” by Palestinian newspapers, Ghurouf finished 71st in the 100-meter heats in 13.07, fast enough to set a Palestinian record.
Nassar, a 21-year-old dentistry student, is one of the few women from her region ever to swim in the Olympics. She did most of her training — sporadically and without a coach — in a 12-meter pool because she lacked a permit to reach the nearest Olympic-size pool in Israel.
“It was really hard for me to train and to even get to the Olympics,” she said.
Four Afghan athletes also came to Beijing, representing a country that has never won an Olympic medal and is sinking ever deeper into war as the Taliban insurgency escalates.
Robina Muqimyar — who in 2004 broke the gender barrier on the Afghan Olympic team — was last in a field of 85 in the women’s 100 meters in a time of 14.80, posted while running with a scarf covering her head. Teammate Massoud Azizi finished 76th in the men’s 100.
Afghanistan was under high alert Monday for fear of attacks coinciding with Independence Day, and the capital, Kabul, has had limited electricity, so following the Olympics has been a challenge even for those Afghans who care. Given the war, lack of power and economic woes, many Afghans perceive the Olympics as a distant spectacle for other nations to enjoy.
The Iraqi team almost didn’t get to compete in Beijing because of a dispute between the International Olympic Committee and Iraqi Olympic officials — an outcome that would have been heartbreaking for sprinter Dana Hussein. She had trained in donated track shoes; at one point a sniper in Baghdad took a shot at her as she ran.
The dispute was resolved just in time to gain Olympic berths, and Hussein set a personal best of 12.36 seconds in her 100-meter heat — 59th fastest in the field.
“It’s not important to be the best,” she said afterward. “It’s important to represent your heart.”
Hussein’s teammates also fared modestly. Haidar Nasser Shaheed finished second-to-last in the 37-man discus field, felling well short of his goal of a new national record. In double sculls rowing, Haidar Nozad and Hamzah Hussein Jebur finished 14th — but drew a hearty cheer when they completed their final race. Accustomed to training sessions delayed by roadblocks and punctuated by explosions, they were delighted simply to have reached the Olympics.
“Here, we are safe,” Nozad said. “We are very happy.”
The athletes from Georgia arrived in Beijing with their country at peace, but conflict with Russia broke out on the day of the opening ceremony. Though the fighting has since subsided, and Georgian athletes have won three medals, worries linger.
“Every day, every night you’re thinking about it, scared that something will happen to your family,” Georgian hurdler David Ilariani said Monday.
Beyond the ranks of countries in conflict are other athletes far out of their depth competitively — but thrilled nonetheless to be in Beijing.
Stany Kempompo Ngangola, an affable 34-year-old electrical engineer from the Democratic Republic of Congo, clocked 35.19 seconds to finish last of 97 swimmers in the 50 meters — nearly 14 seconds off the pace.
Waseelah Saad became Yemen’s first female Olympic sprinter. Like Muqimyar, she wore a head scarf, while setting a national record of 13.60.
Teammate Nashwan al-Harazi became the first Yemeni gymnast to compete in the Olympics — he was awed even before the competition began.
“It’s a bit shocking,” he said at training. “The other athletes are amazing.”
Then there’s Iran’s return to Olympic basketball for the first time since 1948. Its overmatched team lost all five first-round games, the closest a 15-point defeat by Argentina. That was “a dream result for us,” said Iran’s coach, Rajko Toromon.
“This is our first time,” said Iranian center Hamed Sohrabnejad after Monday’s 91-57 loss to Croatia. “We will play better and better in the future.”