BEIJING, OCT. 4 -- When a sprinter from the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar won his country's first gold medal at the Asian Games here, he ran his victory lap around the stadium waving the red, green and white flag of Kuwait instead of his own.

The crowd loved it. Even though Kuwait has not won any medals in the competition, it has a special status among the athletes and fans here. For the Kuwaitis, just putting together a team and coming to the Games was victory enough.

Kuwait originally had planned to send up to 350 athletes and officials to participate in 14 sports at the Games, an Asian version of the Olympics that is held every four years. Kuwait was expected to be a strong competitor in several sports, with medal possibilities in soccer, swimming and track and field.

But the Iraqi invasion trapped some team members inside Kuwait and forced others who were training abroad to return home to fight the Iraqis and protect their families. The soccer team was in France. The judo and swimming teams were in West Germany. Many of the foreign coaches returned to their own countries, assuming Kuwait would no longer be able to participate in the Games.

"After the invasion, it was difficult for us to know where we are going or what we are doing," said soccer goalkeeper Samir Said in an interview outside the heavily guarded Asian Games Village on the outskirts of the city. Many athletes, including 15 of the soccer players, decided to return to Kuwait. Some of the players' wives were pregnant; others had young children at home, he said.

Many have not been heard from since. There have been unconfirmed reports in Arabic-language newspapers that some of the best players on the national soccer team were killed fighting the Iraqis. The athletes, almost all of them men between the ages of 15 and 25, were and are a prime target for the Iraqis.

In the beginning, Kuwaiti sports officials said, it was not even clear whether there would be a team.

"After Aug. 2, we were not thinking about the Asian Games," said Sheik Ahmed Fahd al-Ahmed al-Sabah, president of Kuwait's Olympic committee. "Many athletes went inside Kuwait." His father, Sheik Fahd al-Ahmed al-Sabah, was president of the Olympic Council of Asia, and was killed defending the emir's palace against the invaders.

When the decision was made to send a team, Kuwaiti sports officials, operating with their government-in-exile in neighboring Saudi Arabia, scrambled to put one together. Some of the athletes who had returned to Kuwait escaped through the desert to rejoin the team.

Notices were placed in Arabic-language newspapers in the Middle East and Europe, and Kuwait's embassies around the world also were asked to look for players.

The response was enthusiastic, but not likely to earn Kuwait any medals. Those who responded generally were older and lacked professional experience.

Together with only a handful of players from the national teams, Kuwait put together a 50-member delegation of athletes and officials to compete in five sports: soccer, judo, swimming, table tennis and track and field.

One of the Kuwaiti soccer players was drafted as coach because the original coach had returned to Brazil. The rest of the teams had no coaches, except for the table tennis squad, whose Chinese coach was in Beijing.

Because Kuwaiti funds have been frozen by the Iraqis, Saudi Arabia paid for the delegation's expenses, from airfares to daily pocket money to the blue-and-white uniforms worn by the athletes.

Two days before the games were to start, Kuwait scored its first victory when the Olympic Council of Asia voted overwhelmingly to expel Iraq.

In any case, when the Kuwaiti delegation arrived in Beijing, many of its athletes had not had proper training.

And there was another factor. "For two months, no one could do anything. We have a bad psychology," said Mahmoud, a burly shot putter whose 5-month-old son still is in Kuwait. "We would like to see our family. We don't know who is still alive. The Iraqis are raping our country."

The soccer team received strong support from spectators in each of its three matches, but was eliminated from the competition earlier this week when it lost to South Korea, 1-0, the Games' gold medal favorite, in a quarterfinal match.

After the game, the players received loud applause as they took a lap at Beijing's Workers Stadium. Many spectators waved paper Kuwaiti flags handed out by the delegation during the game.

"I'm very pleased with our players," Coach Mohammad Karam told reporters afterward. "We just came here 15 days before {the competition} started and this is the first time that they have played in a tournament."

The rest of the Kuwaiti teams also have been eliminated from the competition. Although the Kuwaitis won no medals, the athletes say they have made their point.

"We have proved to all the world that we are against what is happening in Kuwait," said Said. "When they raised our country's flag in the Asian Games Village, that was the moment we were looking for. We put our flag high. That was worth more than 1,000 gold medals."