Pride at Rohullah Nikpai's second Olympic medal in Taekwando has prompted thousands of people to take up the Korean martial art across Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Nikpai has turned his attention to bringing together warring factions, region-by-region. Sada Soltani reports.
Leaping in Nikpai's footsteps. Athletes warm up at a gym in Mazar-e Sharif. (Photo: Soltani)
The Almaas gym, one of several in Mazar-e Sharif, echoes to the sounds of young men striving for excellence - determination, excitement and fatigue line their faces as they work for two solid hours, honing rhythmic moves and discipline.
Their gym is a cement-built room, a few punch bags dangling from the ceiling but otherwise devoid of the kit available to their western counterparts; no pads, headgear or crash mats. Yet the pride at being part of the training here is palpable.
Since Rohullah Nikpai doubled his and Afghanistan's Olympic medal tally, winning bronze in Taekwando at the London 2012 Olympic games after his bronze at Beijing 2008, the country has experienced something of a craze for the Korean martial art.
The National Olympic Commitee estimates there are almost 40,000 people now practicing Taekwondo in Afghanistan, many of them recent newcomers. The inspiration is evident, not just from Nikapi's success, but also from his humble start in the sport: He began training in a refugee camp in Iran.
The next Nikpai? Eight-year-old Abbas gets down to work. (Photo: Soltani)
"After the medal Rohullah Nikpai got at the Olympic games, around 140 athletes, both men and women and in different age groups, registered for classes and workouts at our gym," says Ziauddin Ahmadi, the coach and caretaker of Almaas.
Local shopkeeper Muhammad Haleem said his training got a new lease of energy after the Aghan tricolour was raised in London in August. “When I heard about Nikpai's victory I was over the moon. My commitment to Taekwando quadrupled and I promised to one day get a medal at the Olympic Games for Afghanistan, just like him," says Haleem.
Ibrahim Osmani, chairman of the Olympic Committee of Balkh Province, confirms the upsurge in popularity. “After the 2012 Olympic Games in London, young people developed a special interest in martial arts and in Taekwando in particular. We managed to hold a first competition where athletes from nine provinces of Afghanistan participated," Osmani told Afghanistan Today.
Now, children barely old enough to remember Nikpai's first medal in Beijing are striving to emulate their hero.
“I have been working out in this gym for the last six months," says Abbas, an 8-year-old boy wearing a clean but tattered dobok at the Almaas ('diamond' in Dari) gym. Despite his young age, the boy already tasted success at the nine-province event. "I got a bronze medal," he says proudly between splits.
Rohullah Nikpai in Kabul after his Olympic victory at London 2012 (Photo: Samira Sadat)
By some accounts, Taekwando was introduced to Afghanistan in the 1960s by a PE teacher from the US; Phil Cunningham. The sport survived various regimes including the Taliban, but didn't properly catch on until Ahmed Bahawi, Nikpai's national team colleague, won a silver medal at the Taekwando World Championships in 2007. When a 21-year-old Nikpai won a bronze medal at the Olympics in Beijing a year later, the martial art quickly became a national pastime.
Not that Afghanistan's biggest hero is content to rest on his laurels. He still intends to compete internationally, and is meanwhile busy on the homefront.
"As long as I can run I will help to make Taekwondo big in Afghanistan,' Rohullah Nikpai told Afghanistan Today journalists in Kabul.
It is perhaps Nikpai's own rags-to-riches story of refugee-turned-Olympian that continues to inspire his fellow countrymen. Born in Kabul, a young Nikpai was forced to flee to Iran with his family, and embraced the fighting sport after his initial attempt.
"The first night I started Taekwondo I realised I had a talent," recalls the fighter. "My brother is one year and eight months older than me. He dragged me to Taekwando and his trainer asked me to fight him," remembers Nikpai. What followed was an omen: "In my first ever fight, I beat him."
It is his struggle against the odds that continues to inspire other Afghans, who lack heros who don't tout weapons. But it is also Nikpai's insistance on serving country, not ethnicity, that attracts fans.
"When I went to international competitions, I went to represent 30 million Afghans. I never represent any one language, ethnicity or area. I represent all Afghans," he said, careful to present a platform for all.
"Those who are fighting against the government, as well as those who are fighting with the government – I love them all. We’ve had enough bloodshed and war – I hope they will unite."
Since winning his second Olympic medal, Nikpai has used his fame to encourage both excellence and nation-building. The fighter was chosen by UNAMA as a UN Peace Amabassador and has been touring Afghanistan's 34 provinces encouraging dialogue.
"I never represent any one language, ethnicity or area, I represent all Afghans." Rohullah Nikpai.
"The goal is to motivate young people," says Qaseem Ali Hamedy, an Afghan Olympic Committee official and the fighter's manager. "In Early October 2012 Rohullah visited Nangarhar and Laghman provinces and 10,000 people greeted him in each. People run towards him at each public place, saying: 'You have taken a new image of Afghanistan to the world.'
Pashtun elders were singing 'Long live Rohullah Nikpai,' and according to Hamidi, Taliban were also present in the crowd," says Hamedy.
Hassan, a young man at the Almaas gym in Mazar-e Sharif, quantified the appeal, saying: "I do not think you will be able to find any Afghan Taekwando fighter who does not have a picture of Rohullah Nikpai in his or her room.”
Fight club: Coach Ahmadi, Almaas Athletic Association head Hamdard with the Almaas Gym members. (Photo: Soltani)
Despite Afghanistan's disappointing showing on the cricket field this year, 2012 was still good for sport, the pundits conclude. Nikpai's Olympic success was followed by Afghanistan's first professional, nationwide football league, which was hailed a great success.
Be it a bid for popularity or the growth of a vision, authorities with money gradually seem to be warming to the benefits of a broad sporting culture in Mazar and other places.
“The Governor of Balkh Province has given a piece of land to the Balkh provincial Olympic Committee," said Mohammad Samay Hamdard, chairman of the Athletic Association of Almaas, which runs activities at that gym. "He is going to build a new sports stadium and the foundation for the stadium has been laid down.”