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Running from war, fighting for peace

Masood Momin
As the eyes of the world converge on London and Britain for the 2012 Olympic Summer Games, six Afghan athletes hope to bring home good news and medals. Having trained through the leanest times and in the most…
26.07.2012  |  Kabul
Photographed by a display of past awards and wearing a competition blazer, Tahmina Kohistani spent her final days in Kabul preparing mentally as well as physically for the games. (Photos; Momin) 
Photographed by a display of past awards and wearing a competition blazer, Tahmina Kohistani spent her final days in Kabul preparing mentally as well as physically for the games. (Photos; Momin) 

The final training sprints were made, last kicks thrown, gloves waxed and ring ropes tightened. The countdown is on, and six hopefuls from Afghanistan have joined 14,000 athletes from more than 200 countries in the battle for gold in the London 2012 Summer Olympics. 

This edition of the games sees the participation of the largest Afghan contingency since the Soviet occupation. All are intent on breaking the grim cycle of headlines of violence and corruption that plagued their country in recent years; all seek to bring home the second ever Olympic medal won by an Afghan.

Flying the flag

“Afghanistan has endured a long war and has suffered a lot,” 100-metre sprinter Massoud Azizi told NATOTV. “I want peace and stability in my country. I will do my best to raise the Afghan flag on the world stage,” added the 23-year-old runner, who is the only participant in the men’s event and draws his inspiration from a photograph on his wall at home in Kabul of himself with world record holder Usain Bolt. 

Tahmina Kohistani, who will run in the women’s 100 metres, is only the third woman to represent Afghanistan at the Olympics and the only female competitor in the current squad. Clad in a suit and hijab, Kohistani told Afghanistan Today before her departure to London that she was always driven to excel on her own, revelling in the isolation of solo participation.

“When I was young I tried basketball but didn’t enjoy the team element,” Kohistani told Afghanistan Today. “I liked to have all the points,” smiled the 23-year-old Kabul-based athlete, who began training after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and has since been driven by one aim. “It was my dream to compete in the 2012 Olympics,” said Kohistani, who thanks to impressive performances in the last two years, including at the IAAF 2012 Indoor World Championships in Istanbul, finally gets to square off against the world’s finest in London.

Rough track to competition

For Afghan athletes, there has been no easy path to the Olympics. Sport was neglected under the Taliban regime, and stadiums that were formerly also used for public executions have only recently begun producing world calibre athletes once more.

This is only the third time that the Afghan Athletics Federation is competing at the Olympics.

Adequate training facilities have been lacking – until recently runners still trained on cement tracks. And according to media reports, Afghan athletes are still paid only 15 dollars a month by the National Olympics Committee, which itself is based in a run-down old building in Kabul with only four rooms. 

Conditions have gradually improved though. For example, electronic timers have been installed in place of stopwatches at the recently renovated Ghazi National Stadium in Kabul, where both Azizi and Kohistani train. And athletes enjoy an adequate measure of security and no longer have their training interrupted for acts of violence committed in the name of justice. 

Despite the progress, however, it is an indication of work to be done that the US Army, the largest foreign military force based in Afghanistan today, will field almost twice as many athletes at the games as this country of around 30 million citizens. 

Kickstarting sporting culture

Nesar Ahmad Bahawi, one of two taekwondo fighters competing in London, trains in his own gym, the Bahawi Taekwondo Club that he founded in the Khair Khana district of Kabul. Success is about determination and dedication, but also retaining your perspective on competition, he believes.

Fighting fit: Nesar Bahawi (right) in training before leaving for London.

“As my father always says, there is victory and defeat,” Bahawi told Afghanistan Today while in quarantine at the Continental Hotel in Kabul shortly before leaving for Britain. “What matters is working hard,” said the fighter, who bagged gold in his heat at the Olympic qualifiers in Bangkok and is one of the best hopes for a medal. 

Like others at the top of their game, Bahawi values the example that he can set for Afghan youth. There are now 38,000 people practising taekwondo in makeshift dojos across the country and the relationship between beginners and stars is stronger than ever, he says.

“One day, a taekwondo manager phoned me and thanked me for winning competitions and raising interest in the sport in Afghanistan,” said Bahawi. “This is best thing about my job. “

Rounding out the squad of Olympians is 21-year-old Ajmal Faisal in the men’s flyweight (52kg) boxing category, 25-year-old Ajmal Faizzada in the men’s 66kg judo event, and Rohullah Nikpai, another taekwondo fighter in the under 68kg category and Afghanistan’s only Olympic medal holder.

On your marks, get set...

After bringing home the bronze from Beijing in 2008, Nikpai is set on bettering his performance this year: “I hope I can contribute to bringing peace to my country by winning medals,” he told the BBC before leaving for London.  

His win in 2008 also sparked a surge of interest and fresh recruits at clubs practicing the Korean martial art. President Hamid Karzai rewarded him for the feat with a gift of a house, but such lavish recognition is the exception and not the rule. The female sprinter Kohistani laments the insufficient government funding for athletics. “We don’t get the support we want,” Kohistani said.  

"There is victory and defeat. What matters is working hard."

There is still work to do on national perceptions of sport too, adds the sprinter: “In Afghanistan people think that athletes participating in foreign competitions are representatives of the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee, they don’t realize that these athletes represent the entire nation.”

In purely technical terms, experience is the key and Afghan athletes desperately need it, say those coordinating international participation. “This is only the third time that the Afghan Athletics Federation is competing at the Olympics,” points out that body's head, Abdul Karim Azizi. 

The athletes have the added difficulty of having to compete in London during Ramadan, along with around 3,000 other muslims. Many of these competitors will postpone their fasting until after the games, but some have opted to observe the fast while competing, hoping that the spiritual focus will guide them to glory. 

Regardless, Afghan fans will be hoping that their athletes will return with medals. For as the Afghan proverb says, even if a mountain is very high, it has a path to the top.