By EUGENE BINGHAM

Straddling the Equator and hugged by the blue of the Pacific Ocean, the newest member of the Olympic family had a celebration last week.

Tiny Kiribati, the string of coral atolls which will make its games debut in Athens, held its national track and field championships to finalise its team.

It was a far cry from the United States trials held about the same time.

At the national stadium in the capital, Tarawa, Kiribati's athletes raced on a track of black coral sand, lanes marked out with white beach sand.

"We don't have the synthetic tracks that most countries do, so we get by with what we have," said the national secretary of the Kiribati Olympic Committee, Willy Uan.

Two sprinters, Kaitinano Mwemweata and Kakianako Nariki, made it through selection to claim the country's athletic spots.

They will be joined by weightlifter Meamea Thomas, who won gold in the Oceania Olympic qualifying tournament in the 85kg division but had to wait for a wildcard entry.

When the three athletes and six officials march in the opening ceremony, it will be the first time anyone has represented Kiribati, formerly known as the Gilbert Islands.

Along with Timor-Leste (East Timor), they will be the newest team at the Games, although four Timorese athletes competed at Sydney under the International Olympic Committee flag.

"We are so grateful that we are going to be brought into the Olympic family at the birthplace of the Olympics themselves," said Uan.

"To think this is the first time we will be there, amongst the best athletes in the world, it makes me feel humbled and grateful."

Uan said Kiribati's efforts to make it to the Olympics began in the 1980s. With the help of other Oceania countries, the Kiribati Olympic Committee was finally recognised last year.

"It's going to be a very proud moment."

The country is made up of 33 narrow low-lying atolls midway between Australia and Hawaii, and has a population of about 90,000.

Several thousand turned up at the national championships last week to compete and celebrate the country's Olympic achievement. "All but one of the inhabited islands sent a team."

Uan said the event made athletes realise what was possible. "They said, 'We will train and train and train so we can represent our country in future'."

Athletes from the Olympic superpowers have their own battles to make it to the Olympics, but Games hopefuls from many of the 202 countries which will compete in Athens have much bigger problems.

Lining up for Iraq, reinstated to the fold after being suspended in the dying days of the Saddam regime, will be about 40 athletes who will have overcome life-and-death concerns to make it.

Many from Iraq's team have gone overseas to train, escaping the bomb blasts and attacks which are now part of daily life in Baghdad.

"There's no question that these athletes have a lot to deal with that others don't," an Iraqi Olympic official, Amer Abdel-Jabbar, told AP.

"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."