Fastest Runner in Iraq Makes Olympics

A M A R A H, Iraq, March 19, 2004 -- The Iraqi town of Amarah doesn't much look like a breeding ground for Olympic athletes.

Sewage flows openly through the streets, and many of the children who live in the impoverished town do not wear shoes. But out of all this has emerged Iraq's fastest long distance runner: 16-year-old Ali Hamdan Hashim al-Bahandi.

For the past three years, Ali has trained on a rutted, sometimes muddy dirt field. In October, he won the country's top marathon and fulfilled his dream of becoming a member of Iraq's brand new Olympic team.

The old Olympic team in Iraq was more of a nightmare than a dream, nearly destroyed by international sanctions and war. The team was run by Saddam Hussein's sadistic son, Odai, whose methods of motivation included the torturing of athletes who failed to win. Ali says he just feels grateful to be representing his country at such a hopeful time.

"During Saddam's days, we were taught that Americans were always saying bad things about us," Ali said through a translator. "I know now that wasn't really true. A lot of things weren't true."

A Young Celebrity

In his town Ali has become a celebrity. His father and five brothers are stunned by all the attention.

"We are very proud of him," his father said, "It's great to have a famous track star."

Ali's mother was not allowed to speak to ABCNEWS because of restrictions on women that are part of the Islamic tradition.

The traditional, religious life was the only one that Ali knew until three months ago when he was invited to America.

The California International Marathon in Sacramento had been looking for an Iraqi runner, and Ali was the best. At the California event, he finished third in his age group. But more than that, he discovered a whole new world.

Ali met movie directors and posed with the Sacramento Kings' cheerleaders. With the help of Bassil Kamas, an Iraqi-American who fled Iraq 24 years ago, he learned what American teenagers are interested in.

Girls and Gold Medals

When one high school boy asked him what the thought of the girls in America, Ali said through a translator: "They are all beautiful."

"I saw in Ali a young man who's focused, who's hardworking, who's disciplined," said Kamas. "And he's a good human being."

Although Iraq has not won an Olympic medal since 1960, Ali and his brothers are confident that will soon change.

Kamas predicts that Ali will be a champion at the Olympics, and the only question is which medal.

"Gold, silver or bronze," Kamas said. "One of those three positions."

Any one would be a position he could never have dreamed he'd be in just one year ago.