Olympics: Afghanistan pins its medal hopes on Taekwondo
Thursday August 7, 2008
KABUL, Aug 7, 2008 (AFP) – On the fourth floor of a Kabul building still under construction, amid the roar of a power generator punctuated by cries and punches, the world taekwondo vice champion says he is going to Beijing to fetch Afghanistan’s first Olympic medal.
“I don’t want just to participate. I am going to China to win a medal,” says 23-year-old Nesar Ahmad Bahawi.
At 1.86 metres tall, Nesar is one of the favourites in the 68 kilo division in the Korean combat sport.
He has been working hard for his dream. “I started my specific training six months ago, including a preparation trip to South Korea. I train six hours a day, to develop speed, physical training and technique,” he says.
Afghanistan has never won a medal at the Olympics. Its most notable link with the world event is that the 1979 Soviet invasion led to a US-led international boycott of the games in Moscow the following year.
“I discovered taekwondo 11 years ago and I liked it from the beginning,” enthuses Nesar, whose speciality is the back-kick.
“When I was a child, I saw a lot of martial arts movies. I choose taekwondo because it focuses on kicking and I like kicking!” he says, with a disarming smile.
Behind him teenagers and young adults, some of them in the national team, exchange powerful kicks to the chest, shielded by a trunk protector, or to the head, their blows reinforced by loud cries.
Few among them have the money to buy a dobok, the sport’s uniform, and most wear tracksuit pants and a t-shirt.
All dream of a future like that of Nesar, silver medallist in the 2007 world championships, who has already been to Beijing where he qualified for the games.
He will return to the city with Rohullah Nikpa who will take part the sport’s 58kg event, having qualified at the Asian Games.
“It’s the first time ever that Afghans qualify in any sport for the Olympics with their technique and results. Before they just had wildcards,” says Ghulam Rabani Rabani, 33, president of the Afghan Taekwondo Federation.
“Now their minds and bodies are ready, they will try to do the best for a medal,” he adds enthusiastically. “Afghanistan has never won a medal in the Olympics — it will be the first one ever.”
The war-wracked country’s team to the Beijing games consists of just four athletes: the two men taking part in taekwondo events due on August 20 and 21 and two runners, Massoud Azizi and a woman named only Robina.
Robina is a last-minute replacement for Mahbooba Ahadyar, who has disappeared in Europe reportedly after threats from Islamic fundamentalists even though she chose to run with a headscarf and full tracksuit.
An Olympic sport since Sydney 2000, taekwondo is popular in Afghanistan where it is by far the most practised combat sport.
Rabani says there are 700 taekwondo clubs in the country with more than 25,000 members.
The sport was introduced to the country in 1972 by an American master, he adds.
Its development was not without obstacles especially during the 1996-2001 rule of the Taliban when “students of religion” would interrupt training to check if beards were long enough for their version of Islam and that trainees were praying five times a day.
Today it is financial constraints that are handicapping the sport.
Without funds or much government support, athletes taking part in competitions overseas sometimes have to sleep in airports or go without food for a whole day.
A South Korean foundation is however giving vital support to taekwondo in Afghanistan. It pays for a Korean master trainer and for equipment — trunk protectors, arm and leg guards, masks.
“National team members only receive 16 dollars a month from the government,” says Rabani. “It’s a joke.”
After he won his silver medal, Nesar received a bonus of 2,000 dollars from President Hamid Karzai.
But a few weeks later, the Afghan leader handed the same amount to a 14-year-old would-be suicide bomber from Pakistan who had asked for forgiveness.
It is a parallel that Nesar and his team cannot understand.
Sport could keep Afghan youth away from drugs, says Nesar, arguing for more government support. Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world’s opium and drug use is increasing.
“Narcotics are a big problem in this country. If people do sport, they don’t use narcotics or cigarettes. I wish the government would support sport to keep young people away from drugs.”
An Olympic medal could get more youngsters involved, he says.
“When I got the silver medal, hundreds of new people came to do taekwondo. All teachers in the clubs were calling me to thank me. I hope to do the same after Beijing.”
Copyright © 2008 Agence France Presse. All rights reserved.