Middle East making great strides

Dana Abdul Razak of Iraq won her first heat Friday but was eliminated in her second. Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

LONDON -- Dana Abdul Razak lined up in Lane 2 at Olympic Stadium for Heat 5 in the first round of the women's 100-meter dash. Two lanes over, Allyson Felix planted her feet in the starting blocks. The starter's gun went off and the Iraqi runner burst down the track alongside America's most famous female sprinter.

Abdul Razak finished last in the heat, losing to Felix by eight-tenths of a second, but that didn't matter much. Earlier in the day, the Iraqi had won her heat. She had raced with some of the world's best and she had advanced women's sports in her country.

"I'm really happy to be in the Olympics with such world-renowned people,'' the 26-year-old Baghdad resident said through a translator. "I'm happy I was able to break my own record, even though I've been sick the last few days. I expect the future will be even better.

"This will benefit the people of the Middle East, being in a world-wide competition will set an example for them, showing that it is possible to be in such a field.''

That field looked very fast indeed during Friday night's heats, in which all the top medal contenders advanced to Saturday's semifinals, including the three Americans and the three Jamaican sprinters.

World champion Carmelita Jeter, who won the U.S. trials, ran the day's fastest time at 10.83, then rushed past reporters nearly as fast, saying only "Thank you,'' with barely a glance over. Tianna Madison, who was second at the trials, ran a 10.97. Felix, who earned the third spot in the 100 after Jeneba Tarmoh dropped out of a tiebreaking runoff at the trials, ran 11.01.

"I definitely need to get my start together in the next round,'' said Felix, who, like Jeter, also will run in the 200. "I feel confident I can step it up. It feels really good. I'm excited to finally be under way.''

Much further down the list of times, meanwhile, were some of the more compelling stories of the heats with runners from conservative Middle Eastern countries that have limited athletic opportunities for women.

Running in a head scarf and leggings, Yemen's Fatima Sulaiman Dahman had the day's second-slowest time, but like Abdul Razak, she was happy to be running at all. Not only is her country in civil turmoil, it has such conservative attitudes toward women's sports that she reportedly waits until after dark to train so she won't be seen. She is the lone female athlete from Yemen at these Olympics.

"This is important for me and all the girls like me,'' she said. "And for all Arabs.''

Noor Hussain Al-Malki, the first female runner for Qatar, had a rougher day. Also running in a head scarf, long sleeves and leggings, the 17-year-old runner pulled up quickly with an injury and broke down in tears. She left the track in a wheelchair and did not speak with the media. Qatar sent women athletes to the Olympics for the first time this summer.

While Al-Malki did not finish and Dahman's time was more than three seconds behind Jeter's, Abdul Razak (who did not run in a head scarf or leggings) fared better. She did not advance out of her second heat, but her time showed that Middle Eastern women may have a future in the sport.

"It's quite difficult to get the resources in Iraq, but if we had the opportunities they have in other countries like America,'' she said, "... if we were given the same opportunities, we would push forward and get an Olympic medal.''